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Police pursuits: Are they justifiable — and if so, when?

Over the years, many studies have found that pursuits were rarely a good idea, given the long list of possibly disastrous consequences.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher's dashcam
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher's dashcam from Nov. 18 showing a fleeing suspect running up on a sidewalk and into someone’s yard on St. Paul’s East Side.
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The video plays out like a classic cop film, a suspense thriller with a detective trailing a suspect. For over 15 minutes, beginning around 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 18, the dashboard camera shows Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher racing after a silver sedan while a passenger narrates.

Driving a police cruiser, Fletcher carefully accelerates and follows as the stolen car speeds around St. Paul’s East Side, down Maryland, Arcade, Payne, and Larpenteur Avenues as well as through alleys and side streets. The chase runs through stop signs and stoplights, and Fletcher trails behind at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour while, at one point, the fleeing suspect even runs up on the sidewalk and into someone’s yard.

It’s dramatic and makes for exciting watching. The only problem is that police chases in real life are not like in the movies, and people driving in the background aren’t stunt drivers. Fletcher’s chase calls into question whether police pursuits are justifiable, and if so, when.

It turns out that, for decades, there’s been a quiet change in policy, away from the old-school “Dukes of Hazzard” approach to pursuits, where police chased people who drove away, no matter what.

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“In the ’70s, it was basically chase until the wheels fall off,” said Geoff Alpert, who teaches criminal justice in the University of South Carolina’s criminology department. “If you dared to flee from police, they would chase you at all costs. [But] in the ’80s, some departments and scholars started looking at the numbers.”

Alpert has worked for years to help a group called PursuitSAFETY, a national nonprofit that tries to prevent crashes caused by high-speed chases. There’s a long list of things that can go wrong during a pursuit, everything ranging from the death of an officer, suspect, or innocent bystander to simply the totaling of an expensive police car. Over the last few decades, many studies, including an influential early report compiled by the California Highway Patrol, found that pursuits were rarely a good idea, given the long list of possibly disastrous consequences.

“Pursuits are never completely safe; are the risks worth the outcomes?” Retired Police Captain Thomas Gleason asked when I spoke with him on the phone from Florida. Gleason began working with PursuitSAFETY  after his son, who worked in law enforcement, was killed in a car crash 20 years ago.

“I talk about outcomes and risks: speeding, running through red lights, other cars not seeing you, other distracted drivers not seeing you,” Gleason explained. “The person you are chasing doesn’t care about other people; all he’s thinking about is getting away from the police. When do those risks outweigh the outcomes?”

As Gleason describes, even something as simple as a dramatic “PIT maneuver” (precision immobilization technique) can lead to injuries to officers and years of medical expenses. Earlier this year, the Washington Post exposed how the practice has led to crashes that have killed more than 30 people over the last four years.

These deaths occurred alongside other headline-grabbing worst-case-scenarios, where an innocent victim or officer gets killed. A cursory Google search of these cases leads to seemingly endless examples of tragic deaths and expensive lawsuits. As a recent FairWarning report showed, these kinds of crashes are becoming more common.

The PIT maneuver
Wikimedia Commons
The PIT maneuver (pursuit intervention technique) is a pursuit tactic by which a pursuing car can force a fleeing car to turn sideways abruptly, causing the driver to lose control and stop. During the chase, Fletcher repeatedly asks for a "PIT car," but nobody arrives with one.
In response, most big cities and state agencies these days have complex pursuit policies on the books. The St. Paul Police Department, for example, limits pursuits [PDF] to only when officers have “articulable information” or “reasonably believe” the suspect is involved with a violent felony offense, or is driving in a “flagrantly reckless” and “life-threatening” manner. Similarly, the six-page Minnesota State Patrol pursuit policy [PDF] is both more detailed and less specific, calling for patrol officers to weigh risks and safety to others.

Differences between policies rapidly come into play during the fast-paced encounters police have with suspects in cars. These detailed distinctions can lead to gray areas that unfold in the decisive instants of a police pursuit. For example, during Fletcher’s encounter with the suspect, in the back and forth with the dispatcher, Fletcher and his partner maintain a distinction between “following” the suspect and being “in pursuit” of them. The key difference relates to whether an officer’s emergency lights are lit, and for most of the chase that night, Fletcher keeps them off.

There’s a similar moment of technical back-and-forth when the fleeing car goes the wrong way down a one-way street. At that moment, Fletcher suggests to his passenger that they keep that part off of the radio report. The dispatcher replies, “If he’s going the wrong way, terminate [pursuit].”

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At its most basic level, from a traffic safety perspective, police pursuits are dangerous simply because of the speed. For both the police and the suspects, fast driving puts everyone in danger and a high-speed chase puts both parties into a risky myopia.

“Any time you’re exceeding the speed limit, whether a citizen or an officer, your judgment diminishes [and] you lose the ability to make better decisions,” explained Gleason. “One of things we know in law enforcement is that if we speed up, we develop a tunnel vision. If you’re the offender, all you’re trying to do is get away at all costs, not thinking about long-term effects.”

As the Nov. 18 case shows, it’s one thing to have a pursuit policy on the books, but it’s more difficult to get officers to check instincts about car chases. After being criticized for the chase, Sheriff Fletcher defended his actions in a Facebook post, writing:

The increase in carjackings and auto thefts is in part driven by the criminals’ awareness that in some jurisdictions police officers are not allowed to pursue suspects. … This belief has emboldened the criminal element in our community to commit more crime.

Fletcher’s statement reflects a common belief in law enforcement, but according to some studies, it might not necessarily be true. In his work, professor Alpert points to data that suggests high-speed chases don’t deter crime.

“That’s kind of a myth,” explained Alpert. “There are studies that show that people who are going to run, run anyway, and most of us don’t. It’s just not a fact that people run just because they know they’re not going to be chased.”

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher's dashcam from Nov. 18 showing a pursuit through a St. Paul alley.
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Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher's dashcam from Nov. 18 showing a pursuit through a St. Paul alley.
Certainly, the idea of abandoning police chases runs against the grain of popular culture. The list of classic films and TV shows that fixate on car chases is nearly endless, and my personal favorites certainly include “Bullitt,” “The French Connection,” “Ronin,” and nearly every one of the Jason Bourne films.

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In real life, it remains unclear what role chases in shows like the long-running “Cops,” or even Fletcher’s recurring “Live on Patrol” video series, play in shifting crime patterns. If Alpert is right, high-speed pursuits likely have more effect on the police themselves than anyone else.

Thankfully, on the night of Nov. 18, Fletcher’s chase ended without anything going wrong. After nearly 20 minutes, and the assistance of traffic spikes put in place by the St. Paul Police Department, Ramsey County sheriffs apprehended the suspect in a St. Paul parking lot from which there was no easy escape.

“Some chief says, ‘I don’t care, chase everybody,’” said Gleason, the retired police captain. “Do you realize how many people’s lives you put in jeopardy?”