High-speed police pursuits can be deadly for police officers, innocent bystanders, and suspects. A 2015 USA Today article reports that from 1979 to 2013, 139 police officers were killed during or as a result of high-speed pursuits. During that same time frame, more than 5,000 passengers and bystanders were inadvertently killed due to high-speed police chases, and tens of thousands of people were injured. Suspects also endangered themselves by choosing to run from the law. USA Today says 6,300 suspects died in high-speed pursuits during the time frame of its research. It's no wonder that in 1990, the Justice Department called police chases "the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities."
To reduce the dangers of high-speed vehicle pursuits, law enforcement agencies need to understand the causes of high-speed pursuits, the legal issues involved, the problems behind such pursuits, and the strategies for reducing high-speed pursuits.
Worth the Risk?
In California, only 5% of high speed pursuits were an attempt to catch someone suspected of committing a violent crime; the majority of the pursuits started for a minor traffic or vehicle infraction. In 1998, a study funded by the Justice Department revealed that the most common violation for suspects who caused high-speed pursuits was car theft. The second most common offense was having a suspended license, and the third was avoiding arrest.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn believes that the risks involved with high-speed pursuits do not justify the rewards. In an interview for that 2015 USA Today article Flynn said, "Overwhelmingly, someone is fleeing because they've got a minor warrant, their car isn't insured, they've had too much to drink...the sanctions imposed by courts nationwide for merely stealing a car don't justify anybody taking any risk."
James Vaughn is the chief instructor at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy Driver Instructor Course. In 2004, he showed his class of officers a video of a police chase that ultimately ended with the fleeing vehicle being rammed by a police cruiser, leading the passenger and her child to be ejected. The driver's offense was possessing a small amount of crack. Vaughn asked if a suspect could be shot for possessing a small amount of crack and equated the two events. Vaughn says that many officers "perceive a fleeing suspect as something personal." He goes on to say that thankfully, "there has been an evolution of the profession through better training and better policies."
The Courts and Pursuits
Vaughn's lecture raises the subject of the legality of vehicle pursuits as a use of force and the liability that can result from their consequences. It has been reported that vehicle pursuits are the second greatest source of awards and judgments against law enforcement agencies.
The constitutionality of high-speed pursuits has come under scrutiny in recent decades, focusing on what the courts sometimes view as a "disproportionate use of force." In the 1973 case Johnson v. Glick, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals published a test to determine whether police used excessive force. This test has four aspects: 1) the need for the force, 2) the relationship between the need and the amount of force used, 3) the extent of the injury, and 4) the officer's motives. An action that does not pass this test is a violation of the suspect's 4th and 14th Amendment rights.
The Glick test was used in 1985 during the ruling on Tennessee v. Garner, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that established officers cannot legally kill unarmed persons just because they are running away from the officers. In its ruling, the Court noted that the need to catch Garner, who was suspected of burglary, did not outweigh the suspect's life because he did not pose a considerable threat to society even though he committed a felony.
In 1989, the Supreme Court again made a decision regarding disproportionate force, this time with regard to non-lethal force. In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court used both the Johnson v. Glick and the Tennessee v. Garner opinions to determine that force should be proportionate to the danger posed by the subject, the seriousness of the offense, and the harm in failing to capture the subject.
Since high-speed pursuits are so dangerous, why are they so prevalent? Perhaps the frequency of high-speed pursuits is due in part to the Broken Window Theory, which George Kelling and James Wilson discussed in their article titled "Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety." This theory posits that uncontrolled minor crimes leave room for major crime to slowly creep into the community.
A 2008 study titled "Police Pursuits in an Age of Innovation and Reform" by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 91% of all high-speed pursuits begin with the suspects committing "non-violent" crimes. Departments have implemented vehicle pursuit policies to deter crime, building the (more or less accurate) perception that fleeing the police in a vehicle, even after a non-violent crime, will result in being caught and facing serious consequences.
On the other hand, the Milwaukee Police Department has instituted a no-pursuit policy if the suspect did not commit a violent felony. Alderman Bob Donovan, a member of the Public Safety Committee in Milwaukee said during a TV interview, "We've seen a significant level of disorder as a result of this policy," and that the city's no pursuit policy is "fueling crime across Milwaukee." Critics like Donovan claim that because criminals are becoming aware that these "no pursuit policies" are in place, they think they are more likely to be able to get away with small crimes. The data supports this argument. Motor vehicle thefts, in which Milwaukee police are instructed not to engage in high-speed pursuits, increased from 12 per day in 2013 to 18 per day in 2014. Chief Flynn told USA Today, "These kids were finding out, well, nothing happens to me. They had the prestige of being cool to their friends, the thrill of the danger and no consequences."
This is the conundrum facing law enforcement agencies. How can they reduce the number of high-speed pursuits while still maintaining departmental integrity so that justice is enforced equally and thoroughly?
When it comes to reducing high-speed pursuits, there are various strategies that a law enforcement agency can employ in order to maintain an effective response plan. There are pluses and minuses for each. If a department changes the policy to instruct officers to never pursue fleeing suspects in vehicles, problems with consistent enforcement may arise. On the other hand, high-speed pursuits can be extremely costly, both in terms of people killed and injured and in terms of lawsuits against the involved agency.
One strategy to curtail unsafe high-speed pursuits is a simple change in policy. In 2010, the Milwaukee Police Department began restricting high-speed pursuits to suspected violent felons. From the period of 2010 to 2014, injuries from high-speed pursuits in Milwaukee dropped. The Florida Highway Patrol adopted a similar policy in 2012. Highway Patrol officers were told to only chase criminals suspected of violent felonies, drunk drivers, and reckless drivers. In 2010 and 2011, high-speed pursuits by the Florida Highway patrol numbered 697. In 2013 and 2014, the number dropped to 374.
Agencies can also increase training on high-speed pursuits. High-speed pursuits can happen so suddenly that officers often have little time to think before they must make critical decisions. In 2007, Florida Highway Patrol sergeants were surveyed and the study found that 80% did not think that patrol officers received an adequate amount of pursuit training. One way that a law enforcement agency can help train its officers for high-speed pursuits is using a pursuit management continuum—a visual chart that shows what level of force should be used for what type of offense.
A pursuit management continuum has three levels for both the suspect's actions and for the officer's responses, the Police Policy Studies Council says. For the officer, the levels are Level 1 Control, Level 2 Control, and Level 3 Control. For fleeing suspects, the levels are Level 1 Flight, Level 2 Flight, and Level 3 Flight.
Level 1 Flight is violations such as minor traffic crimes and other low-threat crimes, to which an officer should respond with an action from Level 1 Control, including simple trailing and stationary roadblocks. In this first level, since the threat to the public is not severe, officers can use techniques that are relatively safe for both themselves and the suspects they are trying to stop. If the suspect does not stop, or if a police officer witnesses a more serious offense, then the situation escalates to Level 2, which includes serious traffic offenses and crimes that present a high risk to public safety but do not justify deadly force such as driving while intoxicated. An officer should respond with Level 2 Controls, including rolling roadblocks or controlled deflation devices (spike strips). As officer and suspect action goes up the continuum, the more dangerous the situation is for those involved as well as bystanders. A Level 3 offense would be a life-threatening felony, something that justifies a deadly force response. A Level 3 Control could be ramming the suspects' car or using firearms. Using Level 3 controls should be reserved for the most egregious offenses in emergency situations.
Officers can also use GPS to track a fleeing vehicle instead of pursuing. One such technology, StarChase, has been deployed at various law enforcement agencies.
The StarChase system includes a control panel installed inside the officer's vehicle that the officer can use to arm, aim, and fire the system. The launching component holds the GPS trackers and is installed on the front of the officer's vehicle. When an officer is chasing a fleeing vehicle, he or she can then arm the system, shoot a GPS tracker onto the fleeing vehicle, and terminate the pursuit. Police can then follow up on the vehicle once it is parked to apprehend the suspect.
In a study of 36 agencies, Dr. Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina found that StarChase was more than 80% successful in leading police to criminals, and that many of the unsuccessful deployments were affected by weather.
- Since vehicle pursuits pose a danger to police officers and bystanders alike, law enforcement management ideally should develop and implement a policy that identifies management approval at key decision points for the pursuit to begin and continue. Decision Point One: Do the officers have approval to initiate a pursuit? This decision should be made based on the agency's policy.
- Decision Point Two: Should the pursuit continue beyond its initial moment? This decision must be made based on the totality of circumstances involved and agency policy. For this decision to be effective a superior must direct the pursuit.
- Decision Point Three: Should officers from other agencies become involved? The supervisor who is directing the pursuit should maintain communication with other jurisdictions as the pursuit moves into their territory. The primary reason for another agency to become involved is if the initiating agency abandons the pursuit or it needs support.
- Decision Point Four: What strategies, tactics, or techniques can be used to physically stop the fleeing vehicle? Once again, agency policy, good police management, and legal mandates must guide the decision-making process and any action taken should require command approval.
- Decision Point Five: Should the pursuit be terminated? This decision may be made at any time, beginning with the request to initiate the pursuit, or any time prior to apprehension of the fleeing vehicle. This decision may be made by the initiating officer or management, but management will have greater objectivity and the expertise to make the most effective decision.
Each of these decisions is best made by management. Officers involved in a pursuit are extremely busy, and they are also feeling a rush of adrenaline. They need guidance commanders who are not participating in the pursuit.
Accountability and Assessment
Currently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) uses a voluntary reporting system for law enforcement vehicle pursuits. This means that police departments are not required to report all data from pursuits that occur within their jurisdictions. Police departments can opt out, for example, of giving NHTSA an accurate count of officers, bystanders, and suspects injured or killed as a result of high-speed chases. To keep the department accountable, agencies should require that all of their data to be sent to NHTSA, regardless of how it makes the department look. This will pressure the department to actively reduce the number of pursuits and increase safety when pursuits do occur.
The first step in assessing the effectiveness of implemented strategies is to collect data before the changes are put in place. At least a year's worth of data should be collected so that future data will have a comparative sample. If data is collected only over a couple of months, then the sample size is too small, and it becomes hard to assess the effectiveness of implemented programs.
When looking at pursuit data, simply recording the number of pursuits will not show anything substantive. Even though there will be an expected drop in the number of high-speed pursuits due to officers being instructed to only pursue certain types of offenders, data should still be collected regarding related injuries, fatalities, costs, and the number of pursuits. By collecting all of the different types of data, law enforcement agencies (or the outside sources they hire to analyze the data) can determine whether or not their implemented strategies have been effective.
After the data is analyzed, agencies can adjust their policies and procedures as needed. Once these amended policies are in place, the process must start over with data collection from the new policies. This process should continue until the department is content with the amount of data it has recorded.
High-speed pursuits are a very dangerous task that law enforcement officers sometimes must undertake. Such pursuits are more common than many would assume, and an unfortunate number of them end in crashes resulting either in casualties or fatalities. However, if police agencies understand the causes of high-speed pursuits and how to reduce their likelihood, they will be better prepared to improve officer and bystander safety.
Patrick Oliver served as chief of police for the cities of Fairborn, OH, and Grandview Heights, OH, and as ranger chief of Cleveland Metropolitan Park District. He has significant experience with pursuits, having worked 11 years as a trooper with the Ohio Highway Patrol. Oliver is currently director of the criminal justice program for Cedarville University.
Samuel Kirchhoff is a criminal justice student at Cedarville University.