"The absence of accountability in any process for controlling human behavior is a systemic deficiency that clearly demonstrates to all concerned that policy, training, and supervision are really meaningless when there are no consequences for ignoring them."
Donald Van Blaricom, Ret. Police Chief
California's current vehicle code
Statement of the Problem
The first real comprehensive study of the consequences of police vehicular pursuit was undertaken by the California High Patrol (CHP) and published in 1983 (Department of the CHP Operational Planning Section Staff, 1983).  That Study concluded that 29% of vehicular pursuits end in a crash; 1% are fatal; and 28% of those fatalities are innocent third parties who just happened to encounter the pursuit as unfortunate bystanders.  Although California was the first locale to be methodically studied, subsequent studies have been conducted in other venues to replicate approximately the same statistical ratio of crashes, fatalities, and innocent third party victims.

The CHP, however, interpreted the results of their study to make the questionable policy judgment that, "Undoubtedly, innocent people may be injured or killed because an officer chooses to pursue a suspect, but this risk is necessary to avoid the even greater loss that would occur (emphasis supplied) if law enforcement agencies were not allowed to aggressively pursue violators."  That philosophical statement best represents the demarcation in thinking that still exists within the law enforcement community 20 years later.

This article takes the position that the risk is not always necessary, and there is no reason to believe that a greater loss would occur from taking less risk.  There are essentially two prevailing myths of the pro-chase faction: (1) if a driver runs from the police, he or she must have committed a more serious crime that will be discovered after apprehension and (2) if we adopt a policy of not chasing everyone who runs, everyone will run.

As with many honestly held beliefs, there are simply no facts to support those strongly held assumptions.  To the contrary, it has been demonstrated that there is neither an increase in criminality nor an increase in vehicular flight from the police that can be attributed to the adoption of a more restrictive vehicular pursuit policy (Alpert et al, 2000). As most experienced officers know and studies have confirmed, the person most likely to flee from the police, at a rate of 32% or nearly one-third of the total, is someone driving a stolen car (Alpert et al., 2000). The question then becomes not one of whether an auto thief will flee from a random attempt to stop, which of course he or she will and likely at all costs, but one of whether or not a pursuit will be initiated and continued into a likely crash that may seriously injure or kill and innocent third party (Alpert, 1996).  

That is a policy decision that needs to be made, and the prevailing standard, adopted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in 1996, is "The immediate danger to the officer and the public created by the pursuit is less than the immediate or potential danger to the publish should the suspect remain at large." (IACP, 1996, p.2).  Does recovering a stolen car justify putting anyone's life at risk, especially the lives of innocent third parties who just happen to be in the way of some kid who is running from the police in flat-out panic with his eyes glued to the rearview mirror?  In other words, is the pursuit worth the risk?  This issue needs to be contemplated and decided in advance by experienced law enforcement administrators, not left to the chance discretion of an officer on the street, who is suddenly faced with someone who will not stop.  Just how, after all things considered, is the pursuing officer actually going to make an unresponsive driver stop in the real world, and if the chase continues, how is it likely to end?  The most common terminating event in an urban pursuit is a crash (Beckman, 1985), and that crash will most often occur at an intersection.  Controlled intersections may be likened to the chambers in a revolver being used to play Russian roulette -- sooner or later you are going to hit a loaded one (Van Blaricom, 1998).


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Copyright 2002