To Chase or Not to Chase?

That's the question facing police departments around the country.

Officers are injured, and some die, when a high-speed pursuit ends in a crash. Often innocent people who happen to be in the vicinity at the wrong time are also hurt or killed. Both situations are bad for officers, police departments, the victims, their families and the public at large.

"Back when I started studying police pursuits in the 1980s, law enforcement was concerned with officer injuries," recalls Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina. "But since the early 1990s that emphasis has shifted. Police departments are wondering how important is it to risk the public to pursue fleeing suspects wanted for minor property offenses or traffic infractions. Many in law enforcement now are restricting pursuits to suspects of violent felonies."

He says that research has shown the threshold where it's worth the risk to the public is at the violent felony level. "The arguments that if people run from officers, they're obviously guilty, or if you don't chase fleeing suspects, everyone will flee — they have turned out to be myths," Alpert asserts. "Often the people who run from officers are petty criminals making stupid decisions. Police are learning that they don't want the blood of innocent victims on their hands just to catch someone for speeding."

Alpert reads about police departments restricting their pursuit policies every week or so. "It's an increasing trend, and from my viewpoint, a good one," he says. "Officers aren't missing anything, what they're doing is saving lives."

He admits there are no national statistics on how many injuries and deaths result from high-speed pursuits gone badly because only a handful of states keep records on this. "But I do know that approximately 40 percent of all pursuits end in a crash," Alpert says. "The officers I've interviewed feel horrible when a crash results. Most don't want that to ever happen again. It's damaging to them, as well as to the victims and their families."

In the heat of the moment, officers get involved in a chase anxious to put criminals behind bars; they're focusing on the bad guys and not the public. "The police departments which have created restrictive pursuit policies are essentially saying the command staff and chiefs have decided for the officers about what is worth chasing for and what isn't," Alpert explains. "They're balancing the need to apprehend suspects with the potential risks to the public."

Chicago and Dallas policies

The Chicago (Illinois) Police Department revised its pursuit policy in April 2003, according to Patrick Camden, deputy director of news affairs. "It was done to ensure departmental and public safety," he says. "Since we instigated the new policy, high-speed pursuits and crashes have declined dramatically."

The criteria to decide if a chase is initiated or continued is based on a balancing test, which the policy says is "the necessity to immediately apprehend the fleeing suspect outweighs the level of inherent danger created by a motor vehicle pursuit."

When applying the balancing test, officers have to take into consideration the speeds involved, maneuvering practices required to maintain vehicle control, volume of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and weather and road conditions. If the suspect's identity has been clearly established so later apprehension can be achieved, officers should consider not initiating or terminating an active pursuit. Thirdly, "whenever a pursued vehicle or pursing department vehicle is involved in any property damage traffic crash," the balancing test would help officers decide to terminate a pursuit.

The 13-page Chicago policy covers prohibitions (must be a more serious crime than theft or a nonhazardous traffic violation), authority and accountability, responsibilities and procedures when a pursuit is initiated and when it's terminated, and more.

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