In Pursuit of Justice : Police Chases: High Cost in Lives Stirs Review of Policies
High-speed police pursuits, usually undertaken at the discretion of officers, are being examined and challenged in light of the number of resulting fatal accidents, often involving innocent bystanders or police themselves.
Speed kills and, as one Dallas officer put it, a vehicle traveling at 100 m.p.h. is “like a 3,000-pound bullet.”
In the waning months of 1988, a 12-year-old boy driving a stolen car fled Philadelphia police at high speed during rush hour, ramming into another car, which in turn hit two children on the sidewalk. The other car’s driver was killed, as was one of the children. A Columbus, Ohio, man being chased by police at 80 m.p.h. slammed into another car, killing five members of one family. Two young women fleeing police in Rhode Island careened into a utility pole and died in a ball of fire.
Rules About Risk
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 255 people died in police chases nationwide in 1987. California had the highest number of fatalities, 44.
A report of the Police Executive Research Forum said, however, that such pursuits have become less common in recent years because law enforcement agencies are adopting rules requiring chases to be terminated when there is imminent danger to pursuing officers or the community at large.
Officers involved in deadly pursuits are usually supported by their departments, although chase policies have been changed or are under review in dozens of communities where they have led to fatal crashes.
In Throop, Pa., police procedures are being reviewed since Sept. 11, when, in a chase at speeds up to 85 m.p.h., a sports car slammed into a pole and split in two. Three 19-year-olds in the car were killed. Police Chief Keith Jones said current policy requires that officers take the license plate number of a fugitive’s vehicle, if possible, then give up the pursuit.
Jones said that the officers chasing the sports car never got close enough to read the license number, and that the pursuing police were unjustly blamed for the fatal crash after the youths refused to pull over for a ticket.
“If the policy should be changed, we’ll change it,” Jones said, “but the thing is, you can have as many pages of policies as you want, but when you come down to the fine print, it’s all officer discretion.”
Jones said the driver of the sports car, later found to be intoxicated, had an opportunity to stop and did not.
“We didn’t know there were kids in that car. They made a choice and it was the wrong one,” he said of the teen-agers. “You can’t fault an officer for doing his job. It was just a freak thing and, personally, I don’t blame anybody but the driver of that car.”
In Rhode Island, the American Civil Liberties Union is preparing a report which will cite about 50 dangerous chases in the last five years. The report, which is to be released next month, likens such pursuits to a “use of deadly force” that should be addressed by state guidelines. That report followed the deaths of two girls whose speeding car struck a utility pole at 70 m.p.h. while police were chasing them down a winding road near Coventry.
“We strongly believe high-speed chases should be conducted only when absolutely necessary, and then with very clear standards,” said state ACLU director Steven Brown, adding that towns and cities have different policies and some have none.
Suspicion Led to Chase
John J. Leyden, president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Assn., said the issue has been under study for about nine months. However, he said, Coventry police were justified in chasing the young women after they sped away from a gas station at 2 a.m. because the officers suspected a robbery.
Brown says the officers reacted too hastily in chasing the car containing Stace Ann Knight, 17 and Janeen Smeed, 19.
“The mere speculation that a crime has been committed . . . should simply not be sufficient grounds for engaging in a police procedure that contains such a high risk of injury to the police and innocent people,” he said.
Philadelphia police were criticized after an Oct. 24 chase in which a stolen car driven by a 12-year-old boy careened through the city’s Logan section and crashed, killing an 11-year-old pedestrian and a 53-year-old motorist (see accompanying story).
“Two people are dead because of a routine police practice that is reckless and risky and damn near irresponsible--a high-speed car chase through densely populated and narrow city streets,” Philadelphia Daily News columnist Jill Porter wrote. The police replied that an initial review of the incident found it was a proper chase. The final review has yet to be completed.
Difficulty With Studies
Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, has conducted one of the few studies of high-speed pursuits. He said part of the difficulty in investigating the subject is lack of information.
Many police chiefs, unless they are really progressive, “won’t give the time of day” to someone who is questioning their policies, Alpert said.
“The problem with a national study is, first, access to data. Most (police departments)--this is shocking, and should be shocking--don’t even know how many chases they’ve had.”
Alpert did a comprehensive study for the Metro-Dade police of the Miami area at the request of police researchers who gave him access to files and free reign to determine whether there was a problem with the pursuit policy. After a six-month study of 323 chases, Alpert concluded there was no significant problem because of the close supervision given officers involved in chases.
“The most important thing is supervision and control,” Alpert said. “You need a supervisor who’s going to take the place of training and policy when the officer in the patrol car loses track of what he’s doing.”
A firm policy and good training can make chases less dangerous to all involved, Alpert said, adding: “Unfortunately, in most jurisdictions, you don’t have this.”
“You can control the cops, you can control his speed, her speed. You can control when he or she can chase and under what conditions. You cannot control the bad guy. You cannot control the innocent civilian who happens to be walking off the curb. Since you can’t control two of the three, you damn well have to control the first. You have to have very strict control on that officer.”
Such control is often easier said than done during a hot pursuit.
Dallas Police Sgt. Jim Chandler said his department has a written policy intended to minimize injuries. It permits no more than two patrol cars to be involved in a chase, which must be monitored by a supervisor who can call it off if the fugitive’s offense doesn’t warrant the risks of a lengthy pursuit.
“The big problem is that the adrenaline gets to flowing. It’s hard to resist the impulse at the end of a difficult chase to jump out and grab the offender, maybe to slap him around a little. You’re so mad--this guy has been bold enough to run from you.”
Chandler said that studies have shown that after six minutes, any chase should be called off.
“Six minutes is a long time, chasing a car through a city,” he said. “Research has shown that beyond that mark, the likelihood of a chase ending in serious injury or death increases dramatically.”
Highway Patrol Findings
In the only other substantial study of pursuits, the California Highway Patrol looked at 683 chases from a six-month period of 1982 and found that 130, or 19%, of the pursued drivers fled to avoid arrest for driving under the influence. Other common reasons were avoiding a citation, driving a stolen vehicle and avoiding arrest for a penal code violation.
Of the CHP chases studied, 198 ended in an accident, causing 7 deaths and injuring 69 other people.
Kent Milton of the highway patrol said there is no prohibition on chases. In fact, he said, the CHP added 450 high-performance Ford Mustangs to its fleet so that officers would be able to overtake souped-up autos.
“Anytime a violator tries to escape and takes off at high speed, we will pursue,” Milton said. “If we did not pursue, we would be rewarding the violator and penalizing the person who stops, which doesn’t seem logical.
“We think you would encourage more high-speed runaways if you didn’t pursue. Pursuit is an important part of the enforcement process.”
When to Give Up
Milton would not spell out the precise policy on when a chase should be abandoned, but he said that, in general, a pursuit will be ended “if the hazard of pursuit outweighs the need to pursue,” especially in a densely populated area.
California law encourages public agencies to set limits on pursuits--including supervision of the chase and guidelines on when the chase should be started or ended. The law provides the public agency with immunity from civil suits if the agency issues such written guidelines.
Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Thomas Lyons said troopers there are instructed to consider such factors as density of population, weather conditions, the offense involved, whether there are other officers in the area to aid with a roadblock and whether a police helicopter is available to help.
“Public safety and (the trooper’s) own safety are the two first concerns,” he said. “Then it comes down to conditions under which the chase will happen.”
Seattle police spokesman Don Church said officers are never criticized for ending a pursuit, and added that different circumstances require different judgments.
Referring to the deaths of three Los Angeles policemen last December, when their patrol cars crashed head-on as they responded to a detective’s call for backup, Church said:
“We discourage speeding in response to backup calls. The primary objective is to arrive. You want to get there with haste, but you have to keep safety in mind. It’s a tough balance to call.”
The LAPD has a similar policy. It prohibits violating traffic laws in responding to calls for assistance--which are not the same as pursuits. In the December collision, one officer was speeding in the wrong direction on a one-way street, violating the policy on both counts. Both patrol cars were answering the backup call; they were not pursuing anyone. The offenders had already been stopped.
In pursuit situations, the LAPD weighs several factors to determine whether to break off a chase, including the safety of innocent bystanders, the safety of the officers and the seriousness of the offense, Lt. Fred Nixon said. In addition, a supervisor is to monitor the chase if possible.
Some Rules Changed
Tough and restrictive chase policies have been adopted in Phoenix, the Miami area and Clayton County, Ga. Other jurisdictions are reviewing their guidelines and reducing the number of pursuits allowed.
“Basically, we don’t want officers involved in pursuits unless absolutely necessary,” Phoenix police spokesman Andy Hill said. “We don’t normally pursue for traffic violations; we pursue only if the suspect has committed a felony where there has been violence or there won’t be a chance of catching him if we let him go.”
Hill said the Phoenix policy was adopted two years ago, and the use of helicopters has helped to remove the hazards of ground chases.
“We don’t want to get into pursuits unless there is no other choice,” he said, adding that officers across the nation are killed or injured every year in accidents related to pursuits. “If there’s any kind of a hazard in a non-serious crime situation, our officers or their supervisors are expected to terminate the pursuit.”
In Minnesota, proposed legislation would have allowed confiscation of a vehicle if the driver fled police, but the bill failed. Opponents argued that many such cars are stolen and that it would be unfair to punish the owner of such an automobile involved in a chase.
Sheldon Greenberg, assistant director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said the opportunities for engaging in chases have not decreased, but pursuits seem to be fewer nonetheless.
A number of factors account for policies restricting chases, Greenberg said. He cited increased congestion on roads, the high cost of replacing or repairing damaged vehicles and increased awareness of the dangers to bystanders and officers. Another major factor, he said, is the fear of lawsuits that could result in large settlements and higher costs for liability insurance.
The Wyoming Supreme Court recently dismissed a suit over a 1982 highway patrol chase that veered off Interstate 80 and onto the streets of Laramie. When the speed within the city reached 55 m.p.h., the officers backed off but continued to follow the car at normal speeds. The car, driven by Harrold Maddox, then crashed at high speed into the rear of another vehicle, killing the driver, Allan Dewald.
Dewald’s wife sued the state and highway patrol, claiming the officers were negligent in chasing Maddox. The court dismissed the claim, saying:
” . . . When a police officer pursues a fleeing violator and the violator injures a third party as a result of the chase, the officer’s pursuit is not the proximate cause of those injuries unless the circumstance indicates extreme or outrageous conduct by the officer.”