By SHRUTI DAT' SINGH
May 29, 2004 — What's your all-time favorite car chase scene from a cop movie?1968's "Bullitt," 1971's "The French Connection" or perhaps last year's "Bad Boys II?"
Future police officers grow up on that stuff, too, of course, and every year, thousands of lights-and-siren-on pursuits occur nationwide. Results are disturbingly predictable: more than 300 deaths a year in the U.S., and about one-third of those are bystanders, according to statistics collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
"It looks like we are a bunch of cowboys. It's all true. Just like in any profession, you are going to have people who make mistakes," says Sgt. Michael Carter of the police department in Sand Springs, Okla.
Because of the carnage — and the financial liability that goes with it — cities across the country are increasingly forbidding their police officers to engage in high-speed pursuits unless a serious crime has been committed.
"The worst thing is leaving a lot of discretion to the officers. That is where they are going to have problems," says Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor and police-pursuit expert.
Chicago is among those cities clamping down on pursuits?the number of chases fell 42% to 362 last year from 625 in 2002. And so far this year, there have been 107 pursuits.
But the city continues to give its officers wide latitude in deciding whether to put the pedal to the metal. Its year-old policy bans chases for minor traffic offenses or thefts, but leaves other incidents to the officers' discretion.
Earlier this month, 8-year-old Gregory Jones died after an unmarked Chicago Police car hit him as he was crossing a street in the Humboldt Park neighborhood with his 11-year-old sister. The unmarked police car was following a car at about 30 mph, according to police, because an officer saw a passenger point a handgun at a man standing on the sidewalk. The car was not stopped, and the incident remains under investigation?but police are classifying it as an accident, not a pursuit, according to a department spokesman.
In January 2003, 25-year-old pedestrian Qing Chang, who was pregnant, was struck and killed by a car being chased by police in the West Loop; a stolen wallet set off the chase. The incident led to a pending lawsuit against the city.
Once a pursuit begins, Chicago Police officials now often order the officer behind the wheel to call it off. Last year, 54% of chases were terminated, up from 40% in 2002.
Still, many chases start with an officer observing a minor offense. In 2003, 37% of Chicago Police pursuits started over traffic violations, and 53% involved felonies. The previous year, 52% of chases began over traffic violations, and 44% involved felonies.
"We still have pursuits, but they are for more serious offenses," says Traffic Section Cmdr. Ed Lanuti, a member of the Chicago Police Department's Traffic Review Board.
Tighter controls needed
But the University of South Carolina's Mr. Alpert says Chicago's policy doesn't go far enough. "I think Chicago is allowing chases for a few more offenses than they should," he says.
Police in Orlando, Fla., do not permit chases unless officers believe a suspect has committed a violent crime. Similarly, since 1997, the Illinois State Police has allowed its troopers to chase only suspects they believe have committed a violent felony.
"The Illinois State Police pursuit policy is right on track," Mr. Alpert says.
Nationally, 40% of chases result in accidents, 20% cause injuries and 1% lead to a fatality, Mr. Alpert says. He believes the NHTSA's numbers badly underreport deaths resulting from cop car chases because filing with the agency is voluntary. He estimates that the actual number of fatalities is two to three times higher than reported.
Not enough training
In Illinois, over the last 10 years, more than 200 people?officers, suspects and bystanders?have died in police pursuits, according to the NHTSA.
Pursuits are one of the most dangerous aspects of policing, but remain a low priority in the training regimen, says Capt. Travis Yates, a Tulsa, Okla., Police Department driver-training unit instructor and a national advocate for police pursuit training. (He operates www.policedriving.com.)
Illinois State Police are trained on a high-speed track to teach troopers how to handle a car at speeds of 100 mph or higher. During their time at the academy, troopers also learn to deal with high-speed pursuits.
Chicago Police recruits don't have a track. Less training can make pursuits more dangerous. State police had 52 pursuits in 2002, and one-quarter of them, or 13, led to crashes. Chicago's 625 chases in 2002 led to 304 crashes.
"The biggest concern I've had is we don't do enough training in high-speed driving," says former Illinois State Police Superintendent Laimutis "Limey" Nargelenas, who now serves as a manager of government relations and training for the Illinois Assn. of Chiefs of Police.