More than 5,000 bystanders and passengers have been killed in police car chases since 1979, and tens of thousands more were injured as officers repeatedly pursued drivers at high speeds and in hazardous conditions, often for minor infractions, a USA TODAY analysis shows.
The bystanders and the passengers in chased cars account for nearly half of all people killed in police pursuits from 1979 through 2013, USA TODAY found. Most bystanders were killed in their own cars by a fleeing driver.
Police across the USA chase tens of thousands of people each year -- usually for traffic violations or misdemeanors -- often causing drivers to speed away recklessly. Recent cases show the danger of the longstanding police practice of chasing minor offenders.
Some police say drivers who flee are suspicious, and chasing them maintains law and order. "When crooks think they can do whatever they choose, that will just fester and foster more crimes," said Milwaukee Police Detective Michael Crivello, who is president of the city's police union.
Many in law enforcement, including the Justice Department, have recognized the danger of high-speed chases and urge officers to avoid or abort pursuits that endanger pedestrians, nearby motorists or themselves. At least 139 police have been killed in chases, federal records show.
The Justice Department called pursuits "the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities" in 1990 and urged police departments to adopt policies listing exactly when officers can and cannot pursue someone. "Far more police vehicle chases occur each year than police shootings," the department said.
At least 11,506 people, including 6,300 fleeing suspects, were killed in police chases from 1979 through 2013, most recent year for which NHTSA records are available. That's an average of 329 a year — nearly one person a day.
"We don't know that the person in that car is just speeding or just had a headlight out ... [or] if they had just committed a felony," said Joseph Farrow, commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, which chased 14,628 motorists from 2007 through 2014, resulting in 4,052 crashes, 2,198 injuries and 103 deaths.