The Cincinnati Police Department implemented a new policy limiting police chases to “violent felony offenses,” the latest city to restrict the risky police tactic.
The Atlanta Police Department updated its policy last summer, similarly limiting police to pursuits in cases where violence is suspected. Chicago police are forbidden from chasing for traffic or theft offenses and required to balance the police action against the risk to the public. The policy in Volusia County, Florida, updated last January, states that apprehending a suspect is “never more important than the safety of innocent motorists or (deputies).”
Like many tactics that came into vogue in the 1980s and 1990s as police departments across the country led the “war on drugs,” police chases have fallen out of favor among police leadership and the mayors and city councils that oversee them.
“I started looking at this in 1980 and it was ‘chase until the wheels fall off.’ It’s not that now,” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. “For the first time, national statistics show more departments have restrictive policies than judgmental policies. We’re seeing more and more departments are restricting (pursuits).”
Chases are frequently deadly. A woman and her baby, both passengers, were killed when the driver they were with crashed into a semitrailer while fleeing police in January. The driver was charged with carrying a gun, but the stop started because of a suspected red light violation. In New Mexico, a police officer and a bystander were killed as police chased a suspected kidnapper.
Such accidents have cost millions of dollars
According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 532 people (including three “occupants of a police vehicle”) died in police pursuits in 2020. At least one, and as many as 10, occupants of police vehicles have died during pursuits each year since the mid 1980s.
More than 5,000 bystanders and passengers were killed in car chases between 1979 and 2013, according to one study. A study of data published in 2007 estimated that 323 people died in police pursuits between 1982 and 2004. Police engaged in about 68,000 pursuits in the year 2012, according to one study, which estimated about 355 people died each year in police pursuits.
Regardless of how serious the underlying crime may be, experts say that any police pursuit brings risk to police, suspects, and the public. Aside from a backlash to all manner of aggressive policing that followed unrest in 2020 over the murder of George Floyd, municipalities have paid out large sums of money in lawsuits resulting from police chases.
The city of Portsmouth, Virginia, settled a lawsuit this this week for $11 million after a police pursuit resulted in a death. In Chicago, the city agreed to a $1.4 million settlement for a woman whose toddler was hit by a car fleeing police in 2015. A judge in Alabama issued a $3.2 million verdict against the city of Birmingham in connection with a police chase in 2020.
Cincinnati’s policy, enacted at the end of February, requires officers to balance the risk of the chase against the risk created by a fleeing suspect’s escape. It permits chases when an officer is trying to catch a suspect in a “violent felony” or when an officer sees something that “constitutes a risk of serious physical harm” to officers or the public. Officials from the Cincinnati Police Department and Cincinnati Mayor’s Office both declined to comment.
“My line is violent crime. It’s reasonable to start a pursuit. It doesn’t mean continue,” Alpert said. “An example is if it’s running through school zones, when bars close at 2 a.m. and you know a lot of people are out. Yeah, if it’s violent it justifies starting (a pursuit), it doesn’t mean always continue.”
Michael Chitwood, sheriff of Volusia County, said deputies have to consider the risk of chases, the totality of circumstances, and what other ways there are to achieve the goal of taking someone into custody. That could include closing down highway entrance ramps to lessen the risk of traffic and crashes miles ahead, or it could mean giving up on a chase once there’s a helicopter overhead that can follow the wanted car.
“You see if you can manage it,” he said. “If you can’t manage it, there’s no disgrace in saying, ‘I just can’t do this, let it go.’ ”
“Good policing is using tools in a responsible, accountable, legally accepted manner,” Chitwood said. “Aggressive policing is, (doing something) because you can. State law allows for almost anything … but cities and counties are more restrictive than state laws, because we have to live with the repercussions.”
‘In too many cases, the costs are too high’
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said that pursuit driving is one of the riskiest actions any police officer can take. The risks are great to officers and suspects, but also to uninvolved pedestrians or motorists.
“There’s still departments that have people chasing people for shoplifting, for larceny, chasing because they didn’t stop. Just chasing them. In 2022 we know the consequences of a chase that goes out of control is astronomical,” Wexler said. “There are people who’ve died needlessly because departments don’t have guidelines or really strict guidelines.”
Even pursuits for violent crimes should have controls built in, Wexler said, like rules for supervision and for when officers should end chases.
“You just have to ask a basic question: Do the benefits of risk outweigh the costs? That’s what it comes down to. In too many cases, the costs are too high,” Wexler said.
Alpert said he favored an approach like Cincinnati’s, where the policy sets out a clear line for what officers are allowed to initiate pursuits for, and what they’re not.
“When you have a judgmental policy, you’re putting cops in unreasonable situations. You’re making them go through a whole variety of factors in a short period of time and to make a decision,” Alpert said. “My opinion is (that) the chief should make a decision for them. There are certain crimes for which pursuits are justified, certain crimes for which they aren’t … Cops would rather be told what to do than put in a bad situation, make bad decisions and be second guessed by the department.”