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How Police Can Pursue Without Harming the Public

Chases have cost the lives of thousands (half of them innocent bystanders), but sometimes they’re the only way to apprehend violent criminals. Police agencies need nuanced policies to guide their officers.

A Wilmington, Del., police vehicle that flipped during a chase along I-95 near Philadelphia International Airport.
A Wilmington, Del., police vehicle that flipped during a chase along I-95 near Philadelphia International Airport in January 2019. The suspect, who was wanted for probation violations and was considered a “person of interest” in two homicides, got away on foot. (David Maialetti/TNS)
It’s a familiar adage: You can’t outrun the long arm of the law. That doesn’t stop some people from trying, and often the result is a high-speed police chase that puts not only officers and suspects but also innocent bystanders in jeopardy. With reports of such chases on the rise, law enforcement agencies should think carefully before initiating a pursuit and take measures to ensure that the risks do not exceed the public safety benefits.

An estimated 11,500 people have been killed in high-speed police chases since 1979. About half were innocent bystanders. And the total does not include the many others who survived but suffered injuries, including brain damage and paralysis. In Los Angeles alone, since 2018 there have been more than 4,200 such crashes, 25 percent of which have led to death or injury. This toll is particularly distressing in light of national data showing that only 9 percent of high-speed chases relate directly to violent crime, compared with 42 percent triggered by a mere traffic violation.

Some critics are calling for abolishing high-speed chases altogether, but there is at least one clear drawback with doing so: Inevitably, some violent-crime suspects who would have been chased down will escape. Of this group, some will be caught before they may violate the law again, but others might escape altogether, leaving them free to commit new crimes and eroding the deterrent effect of policing.

There are workable solutions short of a ban. In September 2023, following a spike in chases and injuries to bystanders, the Houston Police Department joined a growing number of agencies in adopting a policy that smartly restricts the use of high-speed chases to cases in which the fugitive is suspected of a serious crime.

But while violent felony cases are of course included, there is room for disagreement about where the serious-crime threshold should be set.

Houston’s policy excludes most misdemeanors but includes stolen vehicle cases. Auto theft is in itself serious, and in too many instances the pilfered car is immediately used to commit a violent crime. However, not every initial determination that a vehicle has been stolen is accurate, and no one should lose their life over a car. Fortunately, the detailed order setting forth the Houston policy requires officers even in eligible cases to weigh multiple factors before racing after a vehicle, including the potential for collateral damage and alternative means of apprehension. This parallels a similar policy adopted by the Cincinnati Police Department in 2022.

These changes reflect U.S. Department of Justice recommendations dating back to 1990, but with 18,000 police agencies across the country, the nature of local policies, if any, varies widely. The federal recommendations advise that in addition to limiting high-speed chases to cases involving serious crimes, the commanding officer at the scene should be required to weigh site-specific factors, such as time of day and whether there are other options, including creation of a perimeter to reduce the risk of escape in the absence of a chase.

Moreover, the assessment must not end once a high-speed chase begins; as conditions evolve and new information is gathered, ending the chase prior to apprehension must always remain an option.

A comprehensive 2023 study conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum endorsed limiting the types of cases in which high-speed chases are undertaken and emphasized the importance of specialized pursuit training for officers. Tracking the outcome of chases is another priority: A survey of Florida sheriffs' offices found that only half keep data on their high-speed chases and results.

In addition to training and tracking, accelerating the deployment of emerging technologies holds great promise. One example involves the use of a GPS tracker that is launched from the police cruiser and attaches to the subject’s car, hopefully obviating a need for a dangerous chase.

Though it is relatively easy to quantify the number of deaths and injuries resulting from high-speed chases, and perhaps even estimate the harm caused by those who might otherwise escape, more research is needed on indirect effects. For example, does the publicity surrounding deaths and injuries caused by high-speed chases undermine public confidence and trust in the police?

Conversely, would a policy that never allows high-speed chases lead more suspects to flee by racing down the highway, knowing that they could do so with at least immediate impunity? Leaving some room for officer discretion based on site-specific conditions would seemingly make it less likely that suspects could be confident that taking off would guarantee their escape.

Overall, abandoning high-speed chases entirely would be premature in the absence of more research and wider deployment of technological alternatives. We can all imagine a scenario in which a suspected serial killer is speeding down a largely empty rural highway, and there have been instances where alerts have successfully led the public to clear the road, making the risk of bystander harm negligible.

Aside from the potentially beneficial results of adopting nuanced policies such as those in Houston and Cincinnati, there might even be benefits when it comes to police legitimacy associated with gathering public input to inform a chase policy and then the transparent monitoring of the results.

Ultimately, law enforcement has an obligation to apprehend dangerous suspects despite the inherent risks to themselves and others. Creating proper guardrails for high-speed chases can help ensure this obligation is met in a way that accounts for the public safety factors on both sides of the equation and builds public confidence in those sworn to protect and serve.



Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Marc A. Levin is the chief policy counsel for the Council on Criminal Justice. He can be reached at mlevin@counciloncj.org and on X at @marcalevin. He and Khalil A. Cumberbatch lead the council’s Centering Justice initiative.
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