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Departments : Point of Law

Reducing Police Pursuit Liabilities

By having clear-cut pursuit policies in place, departments can help limit liability.

February 01, 2000  |  by Officer Charles W. Dahlinger

Police pursuits in motor vehicles have been the target of numerous research studies over the past two decades.  It is not uncommon to hear or read a news broadcast reporting a critical injury or untimely death to an innocent bystander as a result of a police pursuit.  The innocent victim may have been struck by the fleeing suspect, but it is the police department that eventually comes under fire for allowing the pursuit to continue.  In order to limit needless deaths, injuries and property damage, police agencies should set strict and uniform standards for starting, and continuing, a police pursuit.

Residual Effects of the Chase

A police pursuit is defined as " active attempt by a law enforcement officer on duty in a patrol car to apprehend one or more occupants of a moving vehicle, providing the driver of such a vehicle is aware of the attempt and is resisting apprehension by maintaining or increasing his speed or ignoring the law enforcement officer's attempt to stop him," (Nugent, Connors, McEwen and Mayo, 1990:1).  However, assumptions that a violator flees from an officer because of a serious criminal act are not necessarily correct (Alpert, 1987).

Police pursuits have left an unacceptable number of property damages as well as personal injury and fatal accidents.  In their 1995 study of pursuits in Minnesota, Robert E. Crew, Jr., Lorie A. Fridell and Karen Pursell reported that of the 4,349 police pursuits studied, there was nearly a 44 percent chance of some sort of property damage occurring as a result of the pursuit.

In research involving Metro-Dade Police Department pursuits, it was found that of the 398 police pursuits studied in one year, 132 of those pursuits ended in a collision, which is 33 percent of the total pursuits.  Within those 132 collisions, 67 were pursuits that were initiated for nothing more than a traffic violation (Geoffrey P. Alpert, "Questioning Police Pursuits in Urban Areas," Journal of Police Science and Administration, 12/87, page 302).

This study broke down the data from those accidents and who was involved as followed: "...41 pursuits ended with injuries to the defendant or his passenger, seven pursuits ended injuring police officers, and four pursuits ended with injuries to bystanders only.  Six pursuits ended with injuries to an officer and a defendant, and the impact of one pursuit injured an officer and a bystander."

According to the study, there were 57 pursuits ending with personal injuries, and four deaths were caused from police pursuits during that year.

High Speed Limits

Police pursuits have become a major liability for police departments, cities and individual officers.  A study was done by Homant, Kennedy and Howton (1994), in which participants were 47 state police departments and 24 of the largest 25 police departments in the country.  They found that 94 percent of these departments have, as part of their written policies, directives that the officers are responsible to terminate a pursuit if it becomes too dangerous to proceed.

Types of Pursuit Policies

The three general types of police pursuit policies, cited by Geoffrey P. Alpert and Roger G. Dunham in "Policing Hot Pursuits: The Discovery of Aleatory Elements" (Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 1989: 525), are:

1. Judgemental: A policy where the pursuing officer makes all the decisions relating to the pursuit, including whether or not to terminate the pursuit.  This type of policy is very vague and opens the police department up for potential civil liability in the case of a collision.

2. Restrictive: A policy that places certain restrictions on the officers and dictates whether they may or may not engage in a pursuit.  The restrictive policy may dictate that officers may not pursue juveniles or suspects fleeing for traffic offenses.  This policy gives the individual officer limited discretion as to whether or not to continue the pursuit or terminate it.

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