On March 2, a police pursuit of a kidnap suspect in Santa Fe, New Mexico, ended with a four-car crash, the alleged kidnapper fleeing on foot and two fatalities, including Santa Fe Police Officer Robert Duran, reported The Santa Fe New Mexican. The tragedy illustrates what some in law enforcement and many community advocates say is an inherent danger associated with vehicle pursuits, and is why the tactic has come under scrutiny.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates more than 530 people died in police pursuits in 2020. What’s more, the federal agency states that as many as 10 occupants of police vehicles involved in chases have died each year since the mid-1980s.
In addition to the heavy toll any loss of life brings, pursuits tend to also carry a heavy fiscal consequence. CNN reported last month that the city of Portsmouth, Virginia, paid out $11 million for a lawsuit after a police pursuit ended with a death. Chicago officials agreed to a $1.4 million settlement for a 2015 police chase, and Birmingham, Alabama, has been ordered to pay $3.2 million for a 2020 incident.
Now, Chicago has joined the legion of cities revising police pursuit policies. Chicago Police Department officers must weigh the risk to the public before initiating a vehicle pursuit. This includes restraining from chasing drivers for traffic or theft offenses, stated CNN. Last summer, the Atlanta Police Department in Georgia changed its policy to only allow officers to engage in a chase when violence is suspected. The Cincinnati Police Department in Ohio just announced a new pursuit policy in March. Cincinnati cops can only initiate a chase in cases of violent felony offenses. Additionally, it recommends a standard radio channel be used during pursuits. Previously, Cincinnati police could pursue individuals suspected of criminal misdemeanor offenses or people with open criminal warrants. The Cincinnati P.D. and three officers are currently the subjects of a lawsuit involving a 2020 chase that ended with the death of an elderly couple.
However, policy changes aren’t always an outcome of lawsuits. There is growing advocacy for chase reform within law enforcement. Sheriff Michael Chitwood of Volusia County, Florida, emphasizes the value of critical judgment and regard for greater public safety in these circumstances.
“You see if you can manage it,” he told CNN. “If you can’t manage it, there’s no disgrace in saying, ‘I just can’t do this, let it go.’ Good policing is using tools in a responsible, accountable, legally accepted manner.”
“My line is violent crime. It’s reasonable to start a pursuit. It doesn’t mean continue. An example is if it’s running through school zones, when bars close at 2 a.m., and you know a lot of people are out. Yeah, if it’s violent, it justifies starting (a pursuit), it doesn’t mean always continue,” added Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina.
“There are still departments that have people chasing people for shoplifting, for larceny, chasing because they didn’t stop. Just chasing them. In 2022, we know the consequences of a chase that goes out of control is astronomical,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “There are people who’ve died needlessly because departments don’t have guidelines or really strict guidelines.”