May 24, 2005

Indianapolis Star Editorial

The chilling reality of hot pursuits

Our position: The city and state must restrict police chases in the interest of public safety.

Racing after a fleeing car at 100 mph along busy streets might be dangerous, but leaving a suspect even temporarily free would be even riskier.

Such is the reasoning behind virtually unrestricted chase policies guiding most Indiana police agencies, including Indiana State Police, the Indianapolis Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff's Department.

In a collision with the facts, that line of thinking comes away undriveable.

As detailed in "Deadly Pursuits," a special report on Sunday and Monday, a computer study by The Star of 947 police pursuits from 2003 and 2004 showed that three-fourths were triggered by a traffic violation or "suspicious" driver, and only 3 percent resulted in charges for violent felonies.

Where the violence is found is in the chases themselves. Nearly one in five police chases in Indiana results in injury. Between 1993 and 2003, 86 persons in Indiana and 3,877 nationally have been killed in police pursuits. Nearly one-third of them were innocent third parties.

Like 27-year-old Tameka Anthony and her 9-year-old son Charles Griffin Jr., killed when a drunk driver rammed her car while trying to outrun police at 80 mph.

Like 28-year-old Rebekah Bublitz and her infant son Nathanael, killed when a fleeing driver slammed into their van at 100 mph.

Is it easy to second-guess after such tragedies? In Orlando, Fla., we most likely would not have to.

Police there are obliged to stop, turn around and drive away when a fleeing vehicle fails to halt. Adopted a year ago over warnings criminals would have a field day, the policy has not been accompanied by a rise in crime.

Orlando is in good company. In Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston and several other big cities, chases are forbidden for traffic violations. In Baltimore and Memphis, only violent-felony suspects can be sped after.

The judgment of a growing number of law enforcement brass and other experts is that chases are unnecessary to eventual roundup of most suspects and are not worth the danger they present to officers, suspects and bystanders. Wide-open chase policies, the experts say, mean more chases, more crashes, more lawsuits, more deaths.

How much less open to make them is a nuts-and-bolts matter for local experts. But for Indianapolis authorities to dismiss even serious consideration of restrictions is irresponsible in light of reforms elsewhere and the human toll here.

It does not help their case that training in pursuits is spotty; among IPD, the state police and the Marion County sheriff, for example, only the last requires regular in-service classes.

It is encouraging that the new state police superintendent, Paul E. Whitesell, is weighing a tighter policy for his forces, who may have set a record when they hit 170 mph on the tail of a motorcyclist in 2003. If figures such as that can't make our protectors slow down and rethink, then the faces of the casualties should.