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He Flees: To Pursue or Not To, That Is the Question

September 01, 2008  |  by D.P. Van Blaricam

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision shielding police officers from being sued in federal court for deaths and injuries to innocent citizens resulting form high-speed chases should not be viewed as an invitation to law officers.

It is useful for law enforcement professionals to learn from the experiences of others and not have to repeat them. I will share one of mine. I was a 25-year-old officer patrolling a rural area at 0300 hours on a September morning when a vehicle attracted my attention. It was a 1957 T-Bird in mint condition with out-of-state plates being driven slightly over the speed limit by a young male and it just "didn't look right." As I pulled behind him he immediately made me in his rear view mirror and when I activated my overhead light, he punched it.

His vehicle rapidly outdistanced me on a long straight-away but I kept him in sight until he went over a rise. When I topped that rise I found another vehicle literally broken in half and upside down in an intersection. I watched the woman passenger die and later I found her husband, still alive but seriously injured, some distance away. The young man I was chasing was still alive too but soon died.

The vehicle he was driving was not stolen, as I had suspected, and the only reason that he ran was because he was a rabbit with a hot car. The accident had occurred when he went through a stop sign at an estimated 130 mph and hit another other car approaching from his left with the right of way. Score: dumb kid dead, one innocent third party dead and another innocent third party crippled for life. Had I been driving a faster patrol vehicle, might I have been a statistic too?

High-speed pursuits are the most dangerous of all police activities for innocent citizens, regardless of the circumstances! In my example it was a rural setting at 0300 hours on a straight road with no one else around, except for the other vehicle that became an unwitting rolling roadblock for my pursuit.

Should those people have died? No. Could I have prevented their deaths? Yes. How? Discontinue the pursuit. When I became a chief of police 15 years later, I wrote one of the first-if not the first-restrictive pursuit policies. That policy remains unchanged today and there have been no pursuit deaths or injuries during the 23 years since it was adopted and followed in a metropolitan area police department.

Furthermore, there have been no adverse effects on either the clearance of crimes or traffic enforcement. That same policy, incidentally, has been cited in the two California appellate court cases of Payne vs. City of Perris and Berman vs. City of Daly City to establish judicially approved pursuit guidelines.

Pursuit Policies

There are three types of pursuit policies: judgmental, restrictive, and discouraging. Most agree that the restrictive model is the appropriate standard of care in requiring that the risks of the pursuit must be balanced against the need to immediately apprehend the suspect. The United States Supreme Court has noted, in their recent Lewis vs. Sacramento County decision, that "the police officer deciding whether to give chase must balance on the one had the need to stop a suspect and, on the other, the high-speed threat to everyone, be they suspects, their passengers, other drivers, or bystanders.

In other words, it must be so important to catch someone that you are justified at putting innocent third parties at risk of losing their lives.  When making the decision to continue a pursuit, it may be sobering to imagine any innocent third party as being your own parent, wife or child because they always are someone's.

Consider, for instance, the horrifying experience of Choctaw, Okla., Police Chief John Whetsel: "In 1980, I lost my first wife and 2-year-old daughter (and almost lost Stacy my 4-year-old) as a result of an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper's pursuit of three motorcycles for minor traffic violations.

"Even though two of the riders soon pulled over to give up, the trooper continued pursuing the third motorcycle into a residential area and through an intersection obscured by tall weeds, proceeding through a stop sign at 100 mph. The trooper's vehicle struck and demolished my private vehicle driven by my wife who had just entered the intersection.

"I was dispatched to the accident scene to assist and was not aware until 15 minutes after my arrival that my family lay crushed in this carnage. There are no words to describe the trauma I went through."

Pursuit Crashes Unnecessary

Of the 121 individual pursuit accidents that I have personally examined over the last 12 years from throughout the U.S. and Canada, every single one of them would have been prevented if the pursuing officer had only followed the department's pursuit policy, whatever it was. In only one of those accidents, incidentally, was the pursuing officer held accountable for having violated the department's policy and therein lies the problem.

Administrative control of high speed pursuits is a four legged program and those legs are policy, training, supervision and accountability. If any of those legs are missing the program will fail. Nowadays, every police department has a policy, although the quality may vary widely between agencies.

Meaningful training in the policy is rare and, accordingly, it is not too surprising when it is not followed in actual practice. Most pursuit training is focused on how to drive fast under the controlled conditions of an emergency vehicle operation course. Little attention is given to when and when not to pursue.

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