Aiming to curb the hundreds of deaths caused by police chases in the U.S. each year, a new report calls for police not to start a pursuit unless a violent crime has been committed and the suspect poses an imminent threat.
The study released Tuesday by the Police Executive Research Forum, a national think tank on policing standards, follows a spike in fatalities from police chases during the pandemic and the criticism of several police departments for the increased use of pursuits, including in Houston and New York City.
The report produced by a committee of experts and policing executives says police chases should be rare, noting that the danger to suspects, officers and bystanders often outweighs the immediate need to take someone into custody.
"A lot of this has to do with the new thinking in policing today, which is about proportionality," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF. "It's about the sanctity of life and balancing the risk to everyone. Police officers die in pursuits. Suspects die in pursuits and even citizens can be injured or die."
Wexler said there are no national standards for when police chases are allowed, and he hopes the report will guide departments on how to update or create well-defined policies. He said there are situations when police must pursue someone, and the report outlines ways to craft policies to allow for that as well as when to call pursuits off.
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The study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, highlighted NHTSA data that shows fatal crashes involving a police pursuit peaked at 455 in 2020, the highest since at least 2007 when there were 372 fatalities.
Wexler said the data shows that even though there were fewer people driving during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, those on the road were driving more recklessly. But Wexler said people rarely go to jail for reckless driving, for stolen cars or for many of the smaller crimes that officers have used to justify pursuits.
Geoffrey Alpert, who chaired the working group that produced the report, is a researcher at the University of South Carolina specializing in high-risk police activities. Alpert said he has advocated for a long time for police to only pursue suspects in violent offenses.
"In the past 20 years, the pendulum has swung in both directions on pursuits. Some department leaders had allowed pursuits for car thefts because everyone involved in car thefts wouldn't stop when they were approached by officers," Alpert said. "But that's property. You may get the car back, but what difference does that make compared to losing a life?"
Houston Police Department officials announced last week that officers would no longer engage in vehicle pursuits for traffic offenses, nonviolent misdemeanors and some other minor offenses. That announcement came after The Houston Chronicle found 740 injuries and 27 deaths during more than 6,300 police chases between 2018 and 2022. Alpert urged the department to impose further restrictions on pursuits.
Other departments, including New York City, have reversed course from tightly controlled permission processes to broadening the range of suspected crimes for which chases are allowed. Meanwhile, New York City’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption said in a report released last month that officers involved in vehicle chases causing injuries or harm should be treated the same as those accused of using excessive force.
Alpert, who has studied vehicle pursuits since the early 80s, said the costs to life and property of vehicle pursuits easily outweigh the benefits of recovering cars or finding weapons. He pointed to Milwaukee, where police heavily restricted chases in 2009 after a series of high profile fatal and injury crashes. The changes immediately lowered deaths, injuries and other poor outcomes, but the city's police commission loosened those restrictions over several years driving injuries and fatalities back up.
Alpert said he hopes the recommendations in the PERF pursuit report become the standard for setting policy, as several PERF reports on policing practices have in the past.