High speed police pursuits constitute one of the most dangerous aspects of police work. Police shootings garner more attention, but many people are killed or severely injured as a result of fleeing suspects and pursuing police officers. Hollywood movies typically depict police officers in “hot pursuit” of a dangerous criminal, but virtually never depict wholly innocent people, such as child passengers in the suspect’s vehicle, or pedestrian bystanders, being killed in crashes and yet they are among the casualties of high speed chases. Pursuit policies vary among police departments and in different geographical jurisdictions depending upon whether a city, county, or state legislature has chosen to address police pursuits. This primer will provide an overview of this controversial subject and will recommend that police commanders and policymakers impose restrictions on police pursuits in order to enhance public safety.
When a police officer activates his vehicle’s siren and emergency lights, drivers are legally obligated to yield to that show of authority and to pull their vehicles over to the side of the road to await further instructions from the officer. It is illegal for a driver to disregard the siren or emergency lights—especially in an attempt to elude the police. In the vast majority of cases, drivers comply with the law and pull over to the side of the road. However, there are thousands and thousands of cases every year where drivers break the law and try to speed away and elude the police. When those situations arise, the police face a dilemma. On the one hand, they are expected to apprehend lawbreakers and keep the community safe. If they don’t pursue the violator, he might never be caught and he might also harm others as he accelerates in his bid to get away. On the other hand, the pursuit itself creates a danger by having another vehicle, the police cruiser, attempting to match the now reckless speed of the suspect vehicle.
When people get killed or injured in crashes from police pursuits, a heated debate typically ensues over the cause of the accident. Was it the suspect’s failure to pull over, or was it the police officer’s decision to pursue the suspect at high speeds? Here are a few chases that ended with tragic results:
- In June 2016, Officer Stacey Baumgartner was in pursuit of a man who had allegedly urinated in public, and then drove away. As Baumgartner’s cruiser sped into an intersection, she was hit by an SUV carrying a family of seven. Both Baumgartner and an 11-year-old boy in the SUV died in the crash.
- In May 2013, police received a call about several women who had stolen some merchandise from Macy’s and departed in a waiting car. Several police cars chased the women’s vehicle at speeds exceeding 100 mph. The women eventually sped down a freeway exit ramp, ran a red light, and then crashed into Rosabla Quezada, who was driving her three sons home from school. Quezada was killed and her 5-year-old son, Jose, was left with brain damage.
- In June 2013, high school senior Patrick Conway was out riding his Honda motorcycle. A state trooper pulled him over because he did not have a license plate. As the trooper stepped out of his cruiser, Conway sped off. A few minutes later, after weaving through traffic at high speeds, Conway collided with a BMW and was killed.
- In July 2012, a convenience store manager called the police at 4 a.m. to report that some teenage girls had just shoplifted some merchandise and had driven away. When a police officer spotted the suspect vehicle, he gave chase. A few minutes later, the carload of young girls crashed into a utility pole. One of the passengers, 12-year-old Casey Grace, was sent to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where she was listed in critical condition.
- In September 2012, Officer Mark Taulbee heard a radio dispatch at 2:30 a.m. that a man had taken a woman’s car after a domestic disturbance. When Taulbee saw the Nissan Altima, he started to pursue it. Shortly thereafter, Taulbee was killed after he lost control of his car and it flipped over into a ditch on the side of the roadway.
And yet it is not uncommon to find police officials trying to shift all responsibility for any harmful consequences on to the suspect-driver with the argument that had the suspect simply pulled over, as he is legally obligated to do, there would not have been any crash casualties. That sweeping claim is misleading and self-serving. If an elderly lady obstinately refuses a police command to step out of her parked vehicle, the officer would not be justified in hitting her over the head with a baton. Similarly, if a shoplifter keeps running after an officer shouts “Halt!” the officer would not be justified in shooting him in the back. Disobedience to governmental authority cannot excuse brutality. By the same reasoning, police pursuits can and should be evaluated separately from the suspect’s wrongful actions.
Federal appellate Judge Frank Easterbrook has suggested a cost-benefit analysis of high-speed chases. According to Easterbrook, such an analysis would “consider not only the risks to passengers, pedestrians, and other drivers that high-speed chases engender, but also the fact that if police are forbidden to pursue, then many more suspects will flee—and successful flights not only reduce the number of crimes solved but also create their own risks for passengers and bystanders.” A rigorous academic analysis is beyond the scope of this primer, but it will be useful to briefly address several preconceptions that would be pertinent to such an analysis, and also to consider the experience of certain jurisdictions that have embraced pursuit restrictions.
The first preconception is that if high-speed pursuits are restricted, “everyone will just go ahead and flee the police.” This is an exaggeration. As noted above, in the vast majority of cases, drivers yield to the police siren and quickly pull over. To do otherwise is to commit a new offense, something the vast majority of people will refrain from doing. Limiting pursuits may bring about some increase in flight cases, but that would likely be on the margin and has to be weighed against the crashes and injuries averted because of the pursuit restrictions.
A second preconception is that high speed pursuits typically involve dangerous criminals. The thinking here is that restricting pursuits cannot possibly make the community safer because with more violent offenders avoiding arrest, they will be free to create more mayhem in the community. This preconception is perhaps understandable because it is a very common scenario in the movies and on television for the police to be chasing a dangerous villain at high speeds. Yet, experience shows that most pursuits are triggered by minor infractions. According to USA Today, 90 percent of the police chases in California between 2002 and 2014 were for vehicle code violations, not violent crimes.
A third preconception is the idea that restrictions on police pursuits are tantamount to complete non-enforcement of law. On this view, restrictions on police pursuits will make the community less safe because the scofflaws will be emboldened to commit even more infractions—even if they’re not violent offenses. It is a mistake, however, to make the leap from certain pursuit restrictions to non-enforcement. To take one example, some police departments will have police cruisers back off a chase on the ground but have a helicopter track the suspect vehicle from above. When the suspect exits the vehicle, patrol officers are alerted and they will then move in to make an arrest.
As noted above, pursuit policies vary among America’s 18,000 police departments. In general, policies and practices have tightened somewhat over the past 20 years. Whether because of increased media scrutiny, litigation fears, local politics, or conscientiousness, more and more departments are embracing pursuit restrictions. Here are several best practices:
- Some departments restrict the types of crimes that can trigger a chase. For example, allowing police to chase a suspect who committed a violent felony, but not allowing pursuits for traffic violations.
- Some restrictive policies focus on road conditions, including weather and traffic.
- Some departments prohibit certain tactics used by officers during a pursuit in order to minimize the risk of an accident, such as ramming techniques.
- Most importantly, many jurisdictions require officers to get supervisor permission in order to initiate a pursuit. The purpose of this requirement is to take the decision out of the hands of the officer in the field, who is likely experiencing an adrenaline rush and tunnel vision.
There is empirical evidence, for example, showing that suspects are likely to slow down to a safe driving speed if pursuits are called off. University of South Carolina Professor Geoffrey Alpert interviewed suspects after they were apprehended and found that 70 percent of suspects said they would have stopped their flight when they “felt safe.” They classified “safe” as being 2 miles or 2 city blocks ahead of police.
In 2010, the Milwaukee Police Department put in a place a more restrictive policy after pursuits caused the deaths of four innocent people in a short period of time. After the first tragedy, Police Chief Ed Flynn defended his department by telling everyone that the chase officers “followed department policy.” After the second tragedy, Chief Flynn came to recognize that another policy would make his community safer. Chief Flynn acknowledged that his immediate duty is “to protect life: the lives of the innocent, the lives of police officers and the lives of offenders.”
In 2006, the Dallas Police Department (DPD) put in place one of the most restrictive pursuit policies in the country. In 2011, while slightly altering the pursuit guidelines, the Dallas Chief of Police David Brown noted, “injuries and deaths to both officers and citizens have plummeted since the institution of the current policy. This must continue to be our focus when deciding to engage in high-risk activities such as police pursuits.” DPD restricts pursuits to situations where the suspect “poses a danger to the public that outweighs the risks posed by the pursuit” – e.g. violent felonies.
One important way to avoid tragedies is to find alternatives to high speed chases. “Bait vehicle” technologies have provided law enforcement with a powerful tool to catch car thieves in a safe and effective manner. With the ability to shut down the engine of the bait car remotely, there is no need for a high-speed pursuit. Another alternative tactic, as mentioned above, is helicopters. While helicopters are expensive and not all police departments can afford them, it would be worthwhile to improve regional and interagency cooperation in order to avoid, or at least reduce, high-speed pursuits. Drones will doubtless be tested for pursuit surveillance as a less expensive substitute for helicopters over the next ten years.
A serious obstacle that has hobbled a thorough cost-benefit analysis of police pursuits has been inadequate information. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tries to track the circumstances of all automobile fatalities. According to NHTSA, pursuits kill about 350 people every year. However, NHTSA’s tally has severe limitations. First, NHTSA only tallies deaths, not injuries. Second, even NHTSA’s fatality numbers are very likely to undercount the actual figure. This is because NHTSA relies upon police department reports on the automobile deaths. If the fleeing suspect hits a tree and dies, officers might report the fatality, but omit the circumstances of the police pursuit. USA Today discovered and reported on such discrepancies in NHTSA’s statistics.
In 2014, Texas created a public statewide database for officer-involved shootings. Every police agency must report shootings to the state attorney general. The attorney general (AG), in turn, is required to post information about the shooting within five days. Each year, the AG must issue a public report summarizing his annual findings. Unlike some questionable proposals for federal data-collection, this state-level data-gathering model is fully consistent with the constitutional principle of federalism. Every state should have such a system in place, not just for shootings, but for police chases as well, whether there are casualties or not. One of the benefits of decentralized policing is that departments can experiment with different policies, the results can then be studied, and best practices identified or refined. To make the reporting model work, however, state policymakers must find a way to sanction local departments that do not meet their reporting responsibilities.
- High speed police pursuits are inherently dangerous. They too often end in crashes that kill and severely injure people, including innocent bystanders.
- Many police pursuits are in response to non-violent offenses or even minor infractions. The risks posed by high speed pursuits in such situations are unjustified.
- The legal standards that apply to police pursuits vary across jurisdictions, but it is possible to embrace best practices that go beyond the legal minimum standard.
- Although there are about 100,000 police pursuits and hundreds of casualties every year, policymakers have largely neglected this dangerous aspect of police work. State-wide policies should be in place to both restrict and track police pursuits.
Geoffrey A. Alpert and Cynthia Lum, Police Pursuit Driving: Policy and Research (New York: Springer, 2014).
Kay Falk, “Chase or Not to Chase?: That’s the Question Facing Police Departments Around the Country,” Law Enforcement Technology, Volume 33, Issue 10 (October 2006).
Thomas Frank, “High-Speed Police Chases Have Killed Thousands of Innocent Bystanders,” USA Today, July 30, 2015.
Hugh Nugent, et al., “Restrictive Policies for High-Speed Police Pursuits” (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, Issues and Practices Series No. 122025) (1990).
Richard G. Zevitz, “Police Civil Liability and the Law of High Speed Pursuit,” Marquette Law Review 70 (1987): 237.
Prepared by Tim Lynch.