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Police pursuits: Balancing catching bad guys with protecting innocents

More often than not, the driver is fleeing because he has something to hide — intoxication, narcotics, warrants, and other criminal activity

Police work often has unintended consequences — unanticipated or unforeseen outcomes not intended by your lawful actions — we all understand to be part of the job. We accept this reality. We jeopardize our own safety and don’t skip a beat to maintain law and order.

Police pursuits sometimes have unintended consequences (link) that most of us can relate to. We observe a traffic violation, attempt to stop the vehicle, and it takes off — that’s a textbook start to many pursuits.

What we don’t often consider is the unintended consequences of our actions and the burden that comes with it. Further, we must consider the fact that the communities we serve sometimes don’t want to make that same level of commitment to keeping criminals in check as we do.

To Pursue or Not to Pursue
Deciding whether or not to pursue is a conundrum that cops face daily as they patrol the streets. Some agencies have removed the burden from the individual officers by eliminating police pursuits unless it’s in pursuit of a known, dangerous felon. Some policies indicate that the officer must consider the risk versus the reward of the pursuit — I find this ridiculous, since most pursuits initiate from a simple civil infraction.

I’m familiar with several examples of instances over the years in which a pursuit led to tragic and unintended consequences. The most recent two occurrences have attracted a lot of attention and in one case the victim’s family has hired a prominent attorney to seek restitution for the loss of their loved one. The attorney is even calling for criminal charges against the officer involved in the pursuit.

Attorneys love to vilify officers involved in fatal pursuits in an attempt to grab headlines. The news media obliges and sensationalizes the story. Sensational news reporting seems to sway the public into believing the only option is to outlaw police pursuits for most violators. The news doesn’t have enough airtime to report all the traffic stops which occurred without incident.

So in a small way, society is changing their perspective on police pursuits as they are exposed mainly to just the police pursuits that didn’t end well. But cops don’t have a crystal ball to provide us with instantaneous intelligence on the driver who just committed a basic traffic law.

Sobering Statistics
The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin for March 2010 indicated that one person everyday dies from a police pursuit. Furthermore, on average from the period of 1994-1998 a cop was killed in a pursuit once every 11 weeks.
However, where is the data indicating that NOT chasing an offender doesn’t impact crime? How do you measure your agency’s success if there is no data on crime which was prevented by stopping a criminal for a simple civil infraction?

In one incident, the offender was later apprehended and charged with multiple counts of controlled-substance delivery, second-degree fleeing a police officer, driving while licensed suspended, assault on a police officer, and resisting arrest. How can anybody determine if this known, dangerous drug dealer wouldn’t have been the perpetrator of a drive-by shooting sometime in the future — perhaps killing an innocent person — if he didn’t have an encounter with law enforcement due to a civil infraction?

There isn’t a simple solution when considering when to pursue or not to pursue. Some reports indicate that in Flint (Mich.) from 2005-2013 there were nearly 270 crashes occurring as a result of police pursuits involving various police agencies within its city limits. The data from those 270 crashes indicates two deaths occurred as a result of those police pursuit related crashes.

That data shouldn’t minimize the loss of life as nobody deserves to die as a result of a police pursuit. The question from a societal perspective is, “Is that an acceptable number?”

There’s no doubt that a family losing a loved one from a police pursuit won’t agree that’s an acceptable number, but what is?

The best resource to determine when to pursue and not to pursue comes from your department policies and the information as perceived by the officer at the time of the incident. A good arrest is soon forgotten, but unintended consequences are not.

It’s our duty to enforce the laws to keep society from those whom choose to live lawless. If a person chooses to flee from the police, the unintended consequences are his responsibility.

Balancing Risk, Reward, and Unintended Consequences
How many times have you been involved in a pursuit stemming from a simple traffic violation? The reality is that most pursuits stem from a simple traffic violation. There are those who flee for the thrill of being in a police pursuit even though they have only committed a civil infraction. Another reality is that more often than not, the driver is fleeing because he or she has something to hide — intoxication, narcotics, warrants, and other criminal activity.

Holding fleeing criminals accountable for their actions is a small part of the solution. However, good police work is a larger part. There are times when terminating a police pursuit may be the better option.

This job is difficult at times. Making split-second decisions based on limited information is what we do and yet the people get to scrutinize our unintended consequences in a safe environment with as much time as they need to speculate how they would have reacted.

Until someone delivers a technology solution — or society becomes completely law abiding — police pursuits will remain a part of what we do. We just need to be mindful of the potential for unintended consequences.

Glenn French, a retired Sergeant with the Sterling Heights (Mich.) Police Department, has 24 years police experience and served as the Team Commander for the Special Response Team, and supervisor of the Sterling Heights Police Department Training Bureau. He has 16 years SWAT experience and also served as a Sniper Team Leader, REACT Team Leader, and Explosive Breacher.

Contact Glenn French.