A Cop’s Opinion: Let’s Restrict Pursuits … Before Untrained Politicians Do It For Us

By Lt. Eric Salemi  |   Mar 6, 2020

Vehicular pursuits rank among the most dangerous activities police officers participate in during their careers. The risk to their lives, the lives of citizens, and property are higher in these events for obvious reasons.  In my opinion, departments can improve the training and safety of their officers by enacting policies that restrict when and why an officer can pursue as well as detail when a pursuit should be terminated.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of legal and justified uses of force concerning pursuits, but civil lawsuits still abound. I believe that more restrictive pursuit policies provide greater safety to police officers.

Here’s why…

Police vehicle pursuits involve tons of steel traveling at often high rates of speed. They don’t occur on a closed track where there is open road and predictable turns and corners. As such, when a police vehicle, presumably driven by an appropriately trained officer and the suspect vehicle, usually driven by a less experienced possibly inebriated driver, go barreling down the road, there is the risk that one or more of the drivers involved–or an uninvolved, unsuspecting citizen–may lose control and/or crash their vehicle. These crashes can result in significant property damage, injury, and even death.

We know that not all people who violate the law are willing to cooperate with a police officer intent on arresting them. There will always be times when an officer must stop a vehicle for a traffic violation or arrest an individual who is in a vehicle. When that person fails to comply with orders to pull over and instead continues driving in an attempt to escape, officers will more often than not, barring policy restriction, pursue the vehicle and offender.

The risk of damage to property and life must be weighed against the threat or harm of allowing a suspect to get away. A restrictive pursuit policy will provide greater safety to police officers and the public by eliminating portions of officer discretion when it comes to deciding whether to initiate or continue a pursuit. Additionally, the policy provides some protection to officers and the department in the likely event their actions are questioned later.

When the decision arises, it isn’t a matter of whether we can pursue, but rather whether we should. Certainly, the Supreme Court has ruled that police must be able to pursue criminals. They even said they were, “loath to lay down a rule requiring the police to allow fleeing suspects to get away” (Scott v. Harris, 2007). The courts recognize the mayhem that would ensue if officers were not able to chase down suspects.

The most recent pursuit data from the IACP comes from as far back as 2007. Of the 7,737 pursuits reported to the study, more than 900 people were injured, 145 seriously, and 23 were killed. (Lum & Fachner, 2008).

Many of these deaths were the result of pursuits for very minor infractions. Pursuits initiated for a red-light infraction, shoplifting, and equipment violations have been recorded as killing people who had nothing do with the offender other than being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

More recent numbers come from a study by Brian A. Reaves, Ph.D. (2017) for the Bureau of Justice Statistics. He reported that from 1996 to 2015, there was an average of about one pursuit-related fatality per day. Police vehicle pursuits resulted in more than 6,000 fatal crashes during the 20-year aggregate period 1996 to 2015.  These fatal crashes resulted in more than 7,000 deaths, an average of 355 per year (or about 1 per day). There were more than 300 pursuit-related fatalities each year during this period. The number of fatalities peaked in 2006 and 2007 when there were more than 400 per year. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of pursuit-related fatalities involved occupants of the vehicle being pursued (not shown). A third of those killed were occupants of a vehicle not involved in the pursuit (29%) or bystanders not in a vehicle (4%). Occupants of the pursuing police vehicle accounted for slightly more than 1% of the fatalities from 1996 to 2015.

So, while I recognize that the mere existence of a pursuit policy will not prevent injuries and deaths, I believe what is in the pursuit policy will. It should alarm modern-day police managers that 3% of the state, highway and municipal police departments and 4% of all sheriff’s offices still do not have any sort of policy concerning pursuits. Although many of those centers on sovereign immunity powers, if that doesn’t concern you, then it is likely that this opinion will come far from convincing you that a restrictive pursuit policy is necessary.

Nationally, police pursuit policies range from highlighting safety precautions officers should consider during a pursuit to outright banning pursuits altogether. The fact is, each time a violator flees, a dangerous situation ensues. However, even if police do not pursue, the reckless actions of the suspect, as the Supreme Court pointed out in Scott v. Harris (2007), can still cause an accident. Understand, I’m not advocating that law enforcement should never pursue. Rather, I’m suggesting that police managers should, in advance, base decisions on the acceptability of pursuits on safety first—best-avoiding destruction, injury or death—then on enforcing the laws. As an industry, we often boast that SWAT saves lives (and we do) because that is our priority in those incidents. The same goal must prevail in pursuits. In an attempt to keep a balance between never pursuing and minimizing risk to the community, officers, and suspects, many agencies have taken on policies that dictate the specific violations for which an officer may and should pursue. For example, it is not uncommon for an agency to allow pursuits only if probable cause exists that a felony involving violence has been committed. Through these restrictive policies, departments make it clear that if the violator has committed a traffic violation or a minor criminal offense, officers are not to pursue. Clear training and quizzing is done with officers annually to ensure that they know how and when to pursue. These policies can be credited with stopping many pursuits before they could start.

Many of these same restrictive policies allow officers to catch up to a vehicle for registration identification in lesser offenses but once they are close enough to observe identifiers, or it is too dangerous to do so, the action is discontinued. In most cases, an officer must notify dispatch anytime he or she is trying to catch up to a vehicle that may appear as though it will not stop. With the increase in technology like line-readers, radio record checks, and a little investigating, officers can obtain enough data to secure warrants later, and even ascertain the possible motive for an offender to refuse to stop.

As a caveat, it is obvious that such policies will have a different impact in different jurisdictions. Many agencies have very few pursuits annually, while others have dozens. In the end, the slope should gravitate toward the safety of the citizens, the officers, and even the suspects.

Policies should ensure that supervisors are charged with strict monitoring and review of all pursuits.   Proper after-action reporting (much like use-of-force reports) and reviews of videos will aid departments in evaluating the effectiveness of their pursuit policy.

One last thing to consider. Police actions are dissected and criticized now more than ever. Laws are being considered and passed in many jurisdictions today that impact when and how we can use force and even who we can arrest. On the state level, I believe it’s just a matter of time before a legislative body decides to restrict our ability to pursue. Though the Supreme Court may say we are not culpable in most cases, they cannot stop states from passing strict laws against their police that do not infringe on our constitutional rights. So, as police managers, supervisors, and officers are we not better served to show a competency airing on the side of caution when it comes to pursuits before untrained impassioned legislators do it for us?

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