More and more law enforcement agencies limit risky police pursuits

Peter Nickeas, CNN

The Cincinnati Police Department has implemented a new policy limiting police pursuits to “violent criminal offenses”, the latest city to restrict risky police tactics.

The Atlanta Police Department updated its policy last summer, similarly limiting police to prosecution for suspected violence. Chicago police do not have the right to prosecute traffic or theft offenses and must balance police action with risk to the public. Volusia County, Fla. policy, updated last January, states that the arrest of a suspect is “never more important than the safety of innocent motorists or (deputies).”

Like many tactics that became fashionable in the 1980s and 1990s as police departments across the country waged the “War on Drugs”, police chases fell out of favor among police leaders and officials. mayors and the municipal councils that oversee them.

“I started watching it in 1980 and it was ‘chase until the wheels drop.’ That’s not it anymore,” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. “For the first time, national statistics show that more departments have restrictive policies than do policies. judgement. We see that more and more departments are restricting (prosecutions). »

The chases are often deadly. A woman and her baby, both passengers, were killed when the driver accompanying them crashed into a tractor-trailer while fleeing police in January. The driver was charged with carrying a firearm, but the stop was initiated due to an alleged red light violation. In New Mexico, a cop 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 “police vehicle occupants”) died in police pursuits in 2020. At least one, and up to 10, police vehicle occupants have died in lawsuits every year since the mid-1980s.

More than 5,000 bystanders and passengers were killed in car chases between 1979 and 2013, according to a study. A study of data published in 2007 estimated that 323 people died in police chases between 1982 and 2004. Police engaged in about 68,000 chases in 2012, according to one study, which estimated that about 355 people are died each year in police pursuits.

No matter how serious the underlying crime, experts say any police pursuit poses a risk to police, suspects and the public. Aside from a backlash to all kinds of aggressive policing that followed the 2020 unrest over the killing of George Floyd, municipalities have paid large sums of money in lawsuits resulting from police pursuits.

The city of Portsmouth, Va., this week settled a lawsuit for $11 million after a police chase resulted in the 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. An Alabama judge returned a 3.2 verdict million against the City of Birmingham in a 2020 police prosecution.

Cincinnati’s policy, enacted in late February, requires officers to balance the risk of prosecution with the risk created by a fugitive suspect escaping. It authorizes prosecution when an officer tries to catch a suspect in a “violent crime” or when an officer sees something that “poses a risk of serious bodily harm” to officers or the public. Officials from the Cincinnati Police Department and the Cincinnati Mayor’s Office both declined to comment.

“My line is violent crime. It is reasonable to start a lawsuit. It doesn’t mean continuing,” Alpert said. “For example, if it goes through school zones, when the bars close at 2 a.m. and you know a lot of people are away. Yeah, if it’s violent it justifies starting (a chase), it doesn’t always mean continuing.

Volusia County Sheriff Michael Chitwood said deputies need to consider the risk of prosecution, the totality of the circumstances and other means to achieve the goal of taking someone into custody. This could include closing freeway on-ramps to reduce the risk of traffic and accidents miles ahead, or it could mean giving up a chase once there’s a helicopter overhead. overhead that can follow the wanted car.

“You see if you can handle it,” he said. “If you can’t handle it, there’s no shame in saying, ‘I just can’t do this, let it go. “

“Good policing uses tools responsibly, responsibly and legally accepted,” Chitwood said. “Aggressive policing is (doing something) because you can. State law allows almost everything…but cities and counties are more restrictive than state law 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 the drive-by chase is one of the riskiest actions a police officer can take. The risks are great for officers and suspects, but also for uninvolved pedestrians or motorists.

“There are still departments that have people suing people for shoplifting, for theft, suing because they didn’t stop. Just chase them. In 2022, we know the consequences of an out-of-control chase are astronomical,” Wexler said. “There are people who have died unnecessarily because departments don’t have really strong guidelines or guidelines.”

Even violent crime prosecutions should have built-in controls, Wexler said, like rules for oversight and for when officers should end pursuits.

“You just have to ask a fundamental question: do the benefits of the risk outweigh the costs? That’s what it’s about. In too many cases, the costs are too high,” Wexler said.

Alpert said he favors an approach like Cincinnati’s, where the policy sets a clear line for what officers are allowed to pursue, and what they are not.

“When you have a judgmental policy, you put the cops in unreasonable situations. You have them go through a whole variety of factors in a short amount of time and make a decision,” Alpert said. “My opinion is (that) the chief should make a decision for them. There are certain crimes for which prosecution is justified, certain crimes for which it is not… The cops would rather be told what to do than put themselves in a bad situation, make bad decisions and be guessed by the department.

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