High-Speed Pursuits: Time for a change
by Jim Phillips
November 15, 2003
Winter Park, Florida -- They are the ultimate reality program, life and death, live and in living color. The Police Pursuit -- from COPS to The Scariest Police Chases to live broadcasts -- a heart thumping, adrenaline pumping high-stakes game of cat and mouse where the loser, or innocents, may pay the supreme price. In many American cities beepers sound to warn of a pursuit in progress. The voyeuristic thrill of the chase is addictive and America cannot get enough.
What is ignored by the public, as well as the breathless reporters hanging from the doors of helicopters or ex-cop narrators spouting endless streams of law and order cliches is that the drama being played out before them is deadly serious. Hundreds of people die, thousands of people are injured and millions, upon millions, of dollars worth of property damage occur, and liability insurance rates soar for police departments.
PursuitWatch.org is a web site that brings together information and resources from around the county; information that is of concern to citizens and law enforcement agencies alike. It is home base to a nationally focused grassroots movement that promotes smarter and safer pursuits. In Florida, California, Mississippi, Georgia, Missouri and New Jersey concerned citizens, lawmakers, and law enforcement professionals work to call attention to thousands, upon thousands, of needless casualties that occur each year in the United States as a result of police pursuits "gone bad."
They struggle to correct the misconceptions, cliches and rhetoric that engulf any discussion of the problem. Not unlike MADD they approach their subject with facts and solutions -- and are beginning to make progress.
In California, Mark and Candy Priano are working on Kristie's Law.
In Florida, I'm helping to rewrite the pursuit policy for the Orange County Sheriff's Office -- one of the largest agencies in the United State and am serving on a citizen committee reviewing the Orlando, Florida, policy and preparing a legislative agenda for Florida.
In Mississippi, Larry and Linda McCoy serve on a statewide committee that is reviewing policy and practice.
Hardly a day goes by that there is not a news story that details deaths or injuries resulting from a pursuit for some petty crime. There are also more and more stories of enlightened agencies restricting pursuits in response to mounting evidence that indicates a need for safer and smarter pursuit tactics and policy.
Families of innocent victims are often -- if not always -- told if the bad guys hadn't run none of this would have happened ....
If I have heard this once I have heard it ten thousand times. While the statement is certainly true, it is far from the whole story. The decision to pursue, or not to pursue, is a complex one and fraught with many pitfalls. When police agencies say that they are "damned if they do-and damned if they don't," that is certainly true as well. Research has shown several important facts:
1. 40% of pursuits end in crashes. 20% of pursuits end in personal injury. 1% ends in death. Conclusion: Police pursuit is a high-risk activity with life or death consequences.
2. Less that 17% of suspects flee for an underlying felony. Most suspects flee for no drivers license, no insurance, no registration, DUI, so their parents won't find out, or like offenses. Conclusion: Your typical fleeing suspect is most probably, young, stupid or drunk -- not a hardened criminal.
3. When police departments tighten pursuit policies there is no increase in the number of suspects who flee. Conclusion: It is the same young, stupid, or drunk suspects who flee -- no matter what the policy is, rampant crime is not the result of tight policy.
4. When police discontinue or decline to pursue the fleeing suspects generally respond in a short distance by trying to blend in with traffic or by ditching the car and fleeing on foot. Conclusion: When police don't chase the suspects don't run for long and when a pursuit becomes dangerous the decision to disengage defuses the situation.
Most of the above facts fly in the face of conventional wisdom and demonstrate that police pursuits and pursuit policy require law enforcement agencies and citizens alike need to think "outside the box." Your life depends on it.
About the author: Jim Phillips, whose 20-year-old daughter, Sarah, was the innocent victim of a pursuit in Orange County, Florida in December of 2001, is an advocate of safer and smarter pursuit policy.