In the movies, police chases are portrayed as exciting and suspenseful with filmgoers getting a front row seat to a path of destruction left behind a multi-car chase with the “perp” in the lead speeding past one police car after another weaving in and around traffic, blowing through stop lights and stop signs, and crashing into anything in the suspect’s way.
In real life, however, there’s nothing entertaining about a high-speed car chase, and these reckless chases often end in motor vehicle accidents as well as serious injury and death. Innocent bystanders who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are frequent victims. What makes death as a result of a police car chase so infuriating is that often the person being chased is suspected of committing a non-violent crime, like stealing a car or burglarizing someone’s home or business.
Too Many Lives Lost During Police Chases
As fatalities from police chases rise, many citizens are expressing great concern at the shocking numbers of police car chase deaths per year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), at least 416 people were killed in police chases in 2017—the fourth consecutive year when the number of people killed during police pursuits increased. That number represents a 22% increase when compared to 2013, when 341 people were killed during a police car chase.
According to the NHTSA, 13,100 people were killed in police pursuits between 1979 and 2017, which is an average of 336 deaths a year. Of that 13,000, approximately 2,700 of those victims were innocent bystanders (pedestrians and people in vehicles who were hit by a fleeing suspect or by police—which is the rarer of the two scenarios). The number of bystander deaths reported by the NHTSA is an estimation because unknown because some NHTSA records are unclear about whether a victim was a bystander or a fleeing suspect.
Policies in Place to Prevent Chases
Most law enforcement divisions have polices in place that police officers are supposed to follow; the policies are designed to limit the number of chases that police participate in, but sometimes the policies are ignored. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, many states have somewhere between 50% and 70% of local police departments have adopted policies that restrict where and how police chases occur.
High-speed chases are one of the most dangerous activities a police officer can be involved in during his tour, and they almost always end badly. According to the BJS, law enforcement agencies that leave the decision whether or not to pursue a suspect in a high-speed chase up to the officers have about 17 chases a year per 100 officers. For law enforcement agencies that discourage or prohibit” police chases the rate is only 2 in 100, the BLS points out.
Many agencies claim their time and resources are being spent on de-escalation tactics and monitoring excessive force and racial profiling. One measure used to stop fleeing cars are tire spikes (or spike strips as they’re often called), which are the retractable metal strips lined with spikes that police officers lay across the road to puncture the suspect’s tires. Because of the obvious danger involved with getting out of the car to lay the strips on the road, new technology developed by StarChase LLC allows police to shoot adhesive GPS tags onto the exterior of fleeing cars and then find out where the car is once it’s stopped traveling.
Police have a several-point checklist to mentally go through before deciding to pursue a fleeing a suspect: Is it a violent criminal? If he gets away, is he a danger to the surrounding community? What are the driving conditions? But most cops will tell you that when they’re in the moment, there’s no time to go through a 13-point checklist. They simply act in a way they’ve been trained and in a way that protects and serves their communities.
No Solution In Sight, Yet
Some state officials have tried to restrict or regulate pursuits but with no success. In Ohio, after a series of pursuits killed bystanders, Attorney General Mike DeWine convened an advisory group in May 2016 to craft a model policy that would improve public safety. Six months later, the group released a report that recommended no formal policy but encouraged law enforcement to examine its current policies and see how those can be improved.