DesertExile: Should Pursuits Be Banned?

15 March 2006

Should Pursuits Be Banned?

Just how dangerous are they?

The following was written by DAVE STORTON, Emergency Vehicle Operations Instructor for San Jose Police.

My comments are injected into the text.

Mrs. Smith arrives home to find a strange van with no license plates parked in her driveway. She goes to the neighbor’s house and calls the police as she sees two men putting her stereo and TV in the back of the van. An officer arrives just as the van is pulling away. He turns on his emergency lights, but the van speeds away. The officer turns his lights off again, and parks in front of Mr. Smith’s house. She runs out and yells, “That’s them! Go after them!�
The officer tells Mrs. Smith, “Ma’am, it’s just a property crime. We do not chase criminals who only commit property crimes.�
“Those guys were in my house!� she yells. “They stole my things! You are a police officer, do something!�
“Ma’am, I will take a report for you,� the officer explains. “I will look for fingerprints to try and identify who the men were, and try to arrest them.�
“Who these guys are? You could have figured that out by asking them had you bothered to do your job and catch them when you had the chance,� Mrs. Smith said, dumbfounded that the officer allowed the men to escape.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but my department policy does not allow me to chase criminals who commit nonviolent offenses,� the officer explained.

Uncommon? Not if a lot of police administrators had their way. You kill two birds with one stone: A. You will not have to do the paperwork after a collision resulting from a pursuit. A(1). You will not have the costs of a lawsuit resulting from that collision. B. You do not have put the same amount of manpower in the field. Right now, many police Departments WILL NOT respond to a car crash UNLESS one or both of the parties claims an injury. In my opinion, this is nurturing fraud, as it is your word against the other guy--if he/she stops, and if he/she gives you the correct information.

Is this what we as a society expect from the police? Increasingly, the answer is yes. It is an emotional argument on the side of people who have lost loved ones, and on the side of officers who think they are being hamstrung by overly restrictive laws and policies. Like many emotionally charged debates, however, perspective is lost in a flurry of statistics.

It is argued that if a ban on pursuits saves one life, it is worth it. If they mean that it is not worth one innocent life lost in an accident stemming from a pursuit, then the police should not pursue anyone for any reason. There is always the law of unintended consequences, however, where the criminal not pursued then commits a crime, as happened in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. The officer there is still living with the fact that he was required by policy to discontinue a chase of two suspects in a suspicious vehicle seen casing some auto dealerships. Later that morning they kidnapped, raped, and murdered a girl waiting for her school bus in front of her house. Crimes committed by criminals who are not chased cannot be tracked most of the time, so the victims created by a restrictive pursuit policy will rarely be known.

Many restrictive pursuit policies prohibit pursuing nonviolent offenders, so if a drunk driver flees they are let go. If that driver later kills someone in an accident, are the police held responsible for this death as they are for pursuit accidents? As of this writing, most agencies will still pursue such violators, but the scale is slowly tipping with the weight of political and media pressure.

There is an often-used statistic that almost one innocent person per day is killed in the United States from police pursuits. This is technically true since every person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and the criminals who are killed trying to evade the police will never get their day in court. Of the 350 people killed by pursuits in 2003, 104 were innocent bystanders. The rest, 70%, were occupants of the vehicle being chased. Although unfortunate, when one flees from the police, one should know they risk serious injury or death.

Lest we minimize the loss of innocent people in 2003, lets put this number in perspective by comparing other accidental deaths.
Deaths in 2002
Falling over furniture: 785
Falling down stairs: 1,598
Falling off of ladder: 406
Drowning in bathtub: 352
Drowning in swimming pool: 636
Choking on food: 819
Bee, hornet, wasp sting: 54
Struck by lightning: 66
Accidental poisoning: 17,550

You are about 7 times more likely to be killed by an inert piece of furniture than by a pursuit, yet we do not see web sites devoted to changing the law on what kind of furniture can be made and how you must arrange it in your house. You are almost 8 times more likely to die from choking on your dinner, yet nobody is trying to pass a law saying we must all put our filet mignon in a blender. Even if the number of pursuit fatalities is underreported as claimed by the watchdog group Pursuit Watch, the numbers are still comparable to other accidental deaths.

Many times, the "Innocent bystander" is not so Innocent. He/she ignored flashing lights and sirens. He/she was not paying attention, talking on a cell phone, drinking a soda, or lost in thought of events in their lives.

We are a risk-averse society, and we increasingly expect to eliminate all risk from our lives. Any time you see a story about an innocent person killed or injured by a pursuit, our natural inclination is to try to make sure it does not happen again. But we need to look at any public safety issue rationally, and not make decisions based on a few incidents that get media play. If the media reported all deaths occurring from bee stings, we would be hearing about a new death about once a week. The public would develop an unreasonable fear of bees.

This is not to say the police should have completely unrestricted policies regarding pursuits. We are professionals, and we know the risks involved. The police need to weigh those risks in each circumstance, and act according to their own best judgment.

Every Law Enforcement Officer KNOWS that if something goes wrong in a chase--regardless of how reckless the pursued drives--the L.E.O WILL BE BLAMED. The LEO knows that immediately after the stop of the pursuit, the second-guessing, the critiquing, the "coulda-woulda-shouldas" will begin. Every Officer does a balancing act, and will "Break Off" (end) the pursuit if the risk to others is increased.

Lawmakers, community leaders, chiefs, and sheriffs struggling with the question of how much to restrict pursuits need to look at the numbers in a rational manner. If, after a reasoned debate about the actual risks, not the perceived risks, the community for which we work wants to end police chases, then we must abide by their decision. That same community must then accept the possible consequences of having an incident occur like the one in Lee’s Summit. Although we may never know how many people were later victimized by criminals not captured, ignorance, as they say, is bliss. It is also politically safer than a front page pursuit accident.

I knew in writing this article that I may sound insensitive to those injured, or to the families of those killed by a pursuit. I assure the reader this is not the case. I advocate policies that encourage officers to use sound judgment, and I advocate more and better driver training for law enforcement officers. If an agency does not properly train its personnel, it should not be chasing anyone. I do not agree with laws written by well-meaning people who rely on an emotional argument supported by incomplete statistics. Today’s law enforcement officers are highly trained professionals, so let them put this training to use by having them use their judgment within guidelines set forth in a well-reasoned and balanced policy.


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