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NOPD tightens pursuit policy in push to clear federal oversight

The updated policy requires that officers obtain express approval from supervisors to maintain a pursuit, limits boxing in or ramming vehicles and prioritizes risk analysis training

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Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP

By Gabriella Killett
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Police Department late last month rolled out changes to its policy for chasing vehicles, aiming to comply with a key piece of the sweeping federal reform agreement that NOPD Superintendent Anne Kirkpatrick is pushing to exit after more than a decade.

The refined chase policy comes as NOPD data from 2022, released last week, shows a rise in police pursuits that year that ended with injuries or property damage.

NOPD pursuits injured eight people in 2022 while chasing drivers suspected of crimes, the most recent data available. It marked the second-highest injury toll in nine years from NOPD chases and the most since 2019, when 17 people were injured during pursuits, according to annual NOPD reports on uses of force.

Two of the injuries in 2022 were deemed unjustifiable. In one case, a suspect’s vehicle struck and seriously injured a pedestrian. In another, an officer hit a suspect’s moped, ejecting him. Officers also damaged property in 18 vehicle pursuits that year, the most since at least 2014.

The consent decree set tight limits on rationales for officers to begin a vehicle pursuit, while requiring ongoing approvals from supervisors to keep a chase going.

Policing experts describe vehicle pursuits as inherently dangerous, often causing fatalities, with a spotty rate of success. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported data showing that police chases are killing 700 people a year in the U.S. , which the newspaper described as an undercount.

Reforms to NOPD uses of force, including vehicle chases, were among the earliest to pass muster with the federal monitors who report to U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan. They found the NOPD provisionally compliant in uses of force in 2019, among 10 of 17 reform areas that the federal monitors moved “into the green.”

But more recently, in August of 2023, the monitors identified backsliding on reforms in several areas, including uses of force and data on pursuits.

The monitors’ view on departmental data diverged sharply from that of NOPD. In a quarterly report published in December, the consent decree monitor found that NOPD had accurately reported its vehicle-pursuit data just 46% of the time. The NOPD scored its internal reporting at 100%.

Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York police sergeant who teaches at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argued that though pursuits are dangerous, making them safer shouldn’t be a difficult fix.

“You don’t need consent decrees. You don’t need national standards,” Giacalone said. “You just need common sense... and police chiefs who have it.”

Adding definition

The NOPD consent decree bars officers from any pursuits without “supervisory approval,” as well as intentionally creating roadblocks, including boxing in potential suspects and ramming into vehicles.

The policy update is among several punch-list items for NOPD as it seeks to satisfy Morgan that the department is ready to move into a two-year phase-out of federal oversight. According to Giacalone, a solid policy is essential, as pursuits are high-risk, especially in urban areas.

“Things can get out of hand at a high rate of speed,” he said.

The new NOPD policy gives more detailed directions on when and under what circumstances its officers may pursue fleeing perpetrators of violent crime. NOPD Sgt. David Barnes said that the updated policy helps set a standard for pursuits nationwide.

“Now, this policy sets that and when to make those decisions on continuing to pursue based on the circumstances that an officer is confronted with,” Barnes said.

The revised policy goes into far more detail on the rules officers must follow and options they must consider when a vehicle they attempt to stop contains fleeing suspects.

The NOPD allows officers to pursue only suspects of what the policy defines as “felony crimes of violence": murder, manslaughter, battery, assault, rape, kidnapping, arson, burglary, robbery, carjacking, aggravated assault upon a peace officer, cruelty to juveniles, and human trafficking.

“The fact that an officer had to move from the path of a fleeing vehicle does not constitute an aggravated assault, attempted murder, attempted aggravated battery or attempted manslaughter for the purposes of this policy,” the revision reads.

The previous iteration of the policy, from 2019, less specifically defined a crime of violence as “a felony involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious bodily harm or death.”

The new policy also specifies that following a car for more than 15 minutes requires supervisor approval, and it emphasizes the importance of activating body-worn cameras during traffic stops as well as vehicle pursuits.

Giacalone said any policy emphasizing supervisory approval and consideration of risk versus reward is a good one. He said that it beats other policies in cities nationally. He pointed to Chicago , where community leaders have argued that chasing restrictions have gotten so strict that it has led to brazen crimes. In San Francisco, voters on Tuesday passed an ordinance that loosens that city’s police pursuit rules.

“We never seem to have a happy medium,” Giacalone said. “You have to have strong policies and you have to back it up. Police departments are worried about the civil litigation part, and it doesn’t matter.”

The updated pursuits policy only applies to the NOPD within the city of New Orleans. Other law enforcement, including local agencies and Louisiana State Police — which is launching a New Orleans -based troop — follow their own policies when conducting pursuits in the city.

Weighing the options

The revised policy repeats a bottom-line calculus: the danger to the public from a suspect remaining at large must exceed the harm a pursuit might cause.

“The need for apprehension must be constantly weighed against the potential danger created by the pursuit,” the new policy reads.

The updated policy directly responds to one of two articles of the NOPD’s federal consent decree geared toward vehicle pursuits.

The first mandates that NOPD “prohibit vehicle pursuits, except where an officer obtains express supervisory approval” and in cases where the pursuit could cause more harm than the potential threat posed by the suspect.

The same clause demands that NOPD ban roadblocks unless using “approved devices designed to demobilize the pursued vehicle.” The new policy offers more specific definitions for boxing in vehicles, ramming vehicles and caravanning.

Barnes pointed out the revised policy’s priority on “risk-analysis training” as it relates to pursuits, including reporting the outcome of each pursuit to NOPD’s internal training divisions, to help with continuing officer education.

The required reporting includes listing the violations that prompted pursuits, which officers were involved, which supervisors approved them and the outcomes.

Barnes called the implementation of the new policy “rewarding ... especially when something that you develop and put into place... you can see it translate into practice and see it work.”

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