California legislators need to pass vehicular police pursuit legislation
that will prevent a new generation of
innocent victims of police pursuits.
A study on police pursuit practices
Enforcement Executive Forum
for instance, officers were not held accountable for compliance with
deadly force policies, does anyone doubt that we would have many more
bad shootings? The fact is
that police pursuits seriously injure and kill far more innocent third
parties than are ever going to be placed at the risk of a police
shooting. Why is that permitted? Officers are strictly prohibited from firing into a crowd, but
they are routinely given the latitude to pursue a stolen car through
urban streets against traffic control devices until a collision
terminates the chase.
happened over and over again throughout the United States and will
continue to occur until chief policymakers assert effective
administrative control over when and how vehicular pursuits are to
be conducted. Can there be any question that this is a critical
public safety issue demanding attention?"
- Control of Police
- by D.P. Van Blaricom, Police Practices
MPA, FBI-NA, Chief of Police (Ret.)
enforcement professionals unanimously agree that police vehicular
pursuits are dangerous and that they must be controlled (Alpert,
Kenney, Dunham, & Smith, 2000), but questions remain as to how
dangerous they are and how they should be controlled. That
debate has been ongoing for a long time and continues unabated
subtitles for full text.
- 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.
Supervision, and Accountability
however, is only the first component of controlling police vehicular
pursuits and will not be solely effective. By example, all law
enforcement agencies have deadly force policies, but they are
critically reinforced by the other three essential components of
training, supervision, and accountability. Without training in what
the policy means and how it is to be fulfilled in actual practice,
there will be no compliance. It will simply be a well-meaning
document that is neatly catalogued in the General Orders Manual,
where it will otherwise only serve to establish civil liability in
the aftermath of an uncontrolled pursuit crash. ("This is
exactly what happens in California," comment by Candy Priano.)
Supervision is especially important to provide an objective balance
of need versus risk from the perspective of a senior officer not
directly involved in the pursuit itself. The adrenaline dump
associated with high-risk exposure is well known to cause tunnel
vision, and the pursuing officer can become so focused on
"catching the suspect" as to exclude adequate consideration of
the inherent dangers to oneself or others (Alpert, 1996).
Perhaps the most important and most frequently missing component of
the four criteria for control of police vehicular pursuits is the
accountability factor, and this is difficult to understand.
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.
Examples of Deadly Pursuits
Although several specific studies have analyzed the issue of risk in
police vehicular pursuits, the following examples may further serve
to lend emphasis to the human dimension of real incidents:
A rural deputy sheriff
pursued a stolen car driven by two youths at high speed into curves
that he knew could not be negotiated until the car left the roadway
and went through a home killing the elderly woman inside and the two
teenagers in the car.
A highway patrol officer
pursued a stolen car through a school zone at high speed until it
struck another car broadside and killed the honor student, who was
driving to school.
An urban police officer
refused to terminate a pursuit, after being ordered to do so, and
the pursued driver hit a young woman's car head on, causing her to
be a quadriplegic in a vegetative state with no hope of recovery.
A city officer terminated
pursuit of a suspected stolen car that was later observed by a rural
deputy sheriff, who initiated and continued pursuit until a head-on
crash occurred that seriously injured an off-duty city officer
A highway patrol officer
pursued a motorcyclist for speeding until the officer himself struck
an oncoming vehicle head-on and was killed at the age of
A small town police officer
saw kids drinking in a public park and pursued their pickup into an
accident, where the unsecured passenger was ejected from the open
truck bed and killed.
A mid-size city police
officer pursued a stolen car through red traffic signals at over 100
mph until it hit a young woman head-on and placed her in a
vegetative state for life.
A city officer pursued a
shoplifter through a crosswalk, where a seven-year-old boy on his
way to school was killed.
A highway patrol officer, in
pursuit of motorcyclists, ran a stop sign at high speed and hit
another vehicle killing a woman and her child -- the damage was so
extensive that the investigating city officer had been on the scene
for 15 minutes before he realized that the deceased were his wife
These are just a few of the actual cases of what continues to occur
nationwide. The United States Supreme Court has warned, "The
police officer deciding whether to give chase must balance on the
one hand the need to stop a suspect and, on the other, the
high-speed threat to everyone, be they suspects, their passengers,
other drivers, or bystanders" (Lewis v. Sacramento County, 1998). Surely, law enforcement administrators and chief policymakers can
expect no less from their officers, 10.5 of whom are killed in
vehicular pursuits on average every year, or for the public at
large, who are those innocent third parties.
Many needless injuries and deaths from police vehicular pursuits can
be prevented by adopting a restrictive policy that balances a need
for immediate apprehension of a suspect against the risks of a
pursuit, training of officers in when and when not to engage in a
pursuit, supervision of officers actually engaged in a pursuit, and
holding officers accountable for failing to comply with the policy,
training, and supervision that has been provided to them. We
cannot continue to accept the loss of innocent life as being an
acceptable casualty rate or a cost of doing business.
"Protect and serve" implies much more than a fatalistic
acceptance of what can and should be reasonably prevented by
responsible police administrators, who are invested with the policy
and oversight authority to control police vehicular pursuits.
Advocates for safer and smarter police
pursuit thank Chief Donald P. Van Blaricom for sharing his insight and
experience with us. When the Chief was a patrol officer, he was
involved in a vehicular pursuit that killed an
innocent victim. He has been pursuing safety in police vehicular pursuits ever
since. The Chief does not just talk about the victims of police
truly cares about the victims and shows it. Chief Van Blaricom was the
first peace officer to send the Prianos a letter and his article:
"He Flees—To Pursue or Not
to Pursue? THAT is the Question."