To Protect, Serve and Chase? Not so much, anymore. Police in Colorado, and across the country, have been re-evaluating the pros and cons of pursuing offenders who flee the scene, especially when the offense is not violent.
It’s an American stereotype, running from Hollywood to Main Street: from Steve McQueen’s 1968 classic chase in “Bullitt” to O.J. Simpson’s real-life slow-speed pursuit by police in June 1994, also showing up in video games like “Need for Speed” and countless YouTube videos of Colorado police chasing drivers across the state. The bad guys always think they can get away, and the police continue to chase them.
The weapons in police chase arsenals go well beyond horsepower and firepower. When chases go on too long, officers can throw spike strips to flatten the tires of a fleeing vehicle. One last resort is the “precision immobilization technique” or “PIT maneuver,” in which a police car rams into the rear quarter panel of the fugitive car, sending it spinning out of control and crashing to a stop.
More than 5,000 passengers and bystanders were killed in United States police car chases from 1979 to 2013, according to a USA Today analysis by Thomas Frank published in July 2015. Frank reported that tens of thousands more people were injured as police chased drivers at high speeds, sometimes in hazardous conditions and for minor violations. Bystanders and passengers in the chased vehicles accounted for nearly half of the deaths. Most of the bystanders were killed in their own cars as the fleeing drivers crashed into them.
“Police across the USA chase tens of thousands of people each year — usually for traffic violations or misdemeanors — often causing drivers to speed away recklessly,” the report said. “Recent cases show the danger of the longstanding police practice of chasing minor offenders.”
The newspaper used statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for its investigation.
Police are not immune to the dangers of police chases, other NHTSA data show. Nine Colorado law officers died in chases between 1980 and 2008, five of them after 2000. Nationwide, 823 police officers died in chases from 1980 through 2008.
Policies and Procedures
Increasingly, police are training recruits and veterans to evaluate a wider range of factors before deciding to hit the sirens and punch the gas pedal. Denver is setting an example for other cities, counties, and states to follow.
In late 2000, the Denver Police Department enacted a new procedure for when and how to stop fleeing drivers.
The change won praise in a Denver Post editorial in October 2000:
The best policy limits police chases to violent felons. While murderers, rapists and armed robbers must be apprehended immediately, car thieves and others can be captured later, sparing the public the dangers of high-speed chases. Nationwide, fewer than 10 percent of law enforcement chases are for violent felons. Indeed, an overwhelming number of chases are for traffic violations and stolen cars, a mere property crime. Yet police pursuits — so often launched for relatively minor crimes — result in the deaths of about 400 Americans each year.
Today, the policy is an 18-page, 8,548-word section of the department’s manual, which is available to the public.