May 30, 2024
Some policing experts and former law enforcement officers say it’s important to strike a balance between apprehending potentially violent suspects and protecting the public from traffic accidents.

Amanda Hernández | (TNS) Stateline.org

During several years of efforts to refine policing tactics — ranging from mandating body-worn cameras to limiting or banning excessive use of force — many states and law enforcement agencies nationwide imposed more restrictive car chase policies to protect civilians and officers.

Now, state legislators and some local and state agencies are turning back the dial, moving to relax the rules on high-speed vehicular pursuits largely because of concerns about crime, according to news reports and a review of testimony by Stateline.

A handful of jurisdictions have rolled back restrictions over the past year, including Florida, the District of Columbia, San Francisco and Washington state. On the other side, Michigan restricted chases, and Hawaii also is considering legislation that would set more restrictive statewide pursuit standards.

Policing experts suggest that state legislative changes nationwide have been influenced by various factors, such as political pressure or high-profile incidents. They expressed doubt that allowing more high-speed chases would significantly lower crime.

“Most people comply with the police voluntarily anyway, and most people are probably not aware of their local agencies’ pursuit policies,” Jacinta Gau, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida and a police-community relations expert, told Stateline. “I don’t think it would have an appreciable impact on any sorts of crime.”

Some policing experts and former law enforcement officers say it’s important to strike a balance between apprehending potentially violent suspects and protecting the public from traffic accidents.

“It’s a very delicate balance,” said Rodney Bryant, a former Atlanta police chief, in an interview. Bryant is now the president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. “One of the things that chiefs or policymakers have to take into consideration as it relates to [pursuits] is what harm happens if the person is not caught right then. … And there’s also the victim’s perspective.”

In mid-March, aiming to limit chases, the Michigan State Police began restricting pursuits only to situations in which troopers have probable cause to believe the driver or occupant of a fleeing vehicle has committed a violent or life-threatening felony.

In contrast, the Florida Highway Patrol recently loosened its pursuit policy. Previously, chases were restricted to felony offenses, reckless driving or DUIs. The new policy grants officers more discretion to initiate chases, removes guidelines about following posted speed limits, authorizes troopers on motorcycles to participate in pursuits, and allows troopers to drive on the wrong side of the road or in the wrong direction.

The Florida Highway Patrol declined Stateline’s interview request, but the agency said in a statement that its troopers are “some of the most highly trained and experienced law enforcement officers in the nation when it comes to pursuit and vehicle operations.”

“While many states shy away from holding dangerous felons accountable for their decisions, the Florida Highway Patrol seeks to use every tool and tactic available to ensure dangerous felons end up in jail and off our streets,” the agency said in its statement.

In the District of Columbia and San Francisco, police department chase policies were changed through a major crime bill and a ballot measure, respectively.

In the District, officers will be able to begin pursuits if vehicle occupants pose an imminent threat to others. And in San Francisco, officers can initiate pursuits for any felony or “violent misdemeanors, including retail theft, vehicle theft and auto burglaries.”

Violent crime, which refers to offenses that involve force or the threat of force, across the United States decreased in 2022 — dropping to about the same level as before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the FBI’s annual crime report. Property crimes rose during the same period.

Most types of crime appear to be reverting toward pre-pandemic levels, according to a report earlier this year from the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank.

Still, some states and cities are experiencing upticks in specific offenses. In Washington state, for example, the violent crime rate in 2022 rose from 335.7 to 375.6 reported incidents per 100,000 people. That’s still below the national rate of 380.7 reported incidents per 100,000 people, according to the FBI.

The number of reported homicides in the state also reached a five-year high in 2022, and robberies surged by 18% compared with 2021, while law enforcement staffing continued to nosedive, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ annual crime report.

In early March, Washington state lawmakers approved a measure that came to the legislature in the form of a citizen initiative. Under the policy, law enforcement officers again may give chase when there is reasonable suspicion a person has violated a law. The policy, which will go into effect in June, allows individual police agencies to impose stricter pursuit rules.

“In June, I think we’re going to see an immediate effect on how crime is treated in Washington state, and we’re going to bend that curve downward,” said Washington state Sen. Keith Wagoner, a Republican who voted for the measure, in an interview.

Washington state’s pursuit policy

Although Washington state’s revised pursuit policy offers greater flexibility in initiating chases, it still requires officers to determine that the potential danger to the public from letting the suspect go outweighs the risks of the chase itself.

The fleeing driver must be considered “a threat to the safety of others,” which is a lower standard than what’s outlined under the state’s current policy. The policy currently requires that the suspect must pose a “serious risk of harm to others.”

Until the new law takes effect, police chases are only allowed for certain crimes, including violent offenses, sex offenses, driving under the influence and escaping from prison or jail. Pursuits for lower-level crimes, such as property theft, are banned.

Following calls for increased police accountability, Washington state enacted its current law in 2021, about a year after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and amended it last year. Some police agencies and state legislators argued that the restrictions hampered officers’ ability to fight crime.

“It wasn’t great policy, kind of a knee-jerk reaction,” Wagoner said. “The bad guys were waiting at the starting line and there was a starting gun, and auto theft just skyrocketed and crimes associated with that took off.”

In 2022, the number of reported motor vehicle thefts jumped by more than a third over the previous year, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ annual crime reports. The Evergreen State had one of the highest rates of motor vehicle thefts in 2022 compared with other states, according to FBI crime data, a consistent trend since at least 1997.

Still, crime data is notoriously difficult to track and understand, and experts say anecdotal evidence on social media can heavily influence public perceptions of safety and crime.

Washington state Rep. Roger Goodman, a Democrat who chairs the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee, voted for the measure, but is concerned that lowering the standard may lead to more injuries and fatalities from traffic accidents.

“I’m holding my breath and fervently hoping that police will use their discretion responsibly and will call the pursuit off if it truly is more dangerous than the risk of not apprehending the person,” Goodman said in an interview.

Some opponents of the revised policy argue that more chases could also lead to increased property damage and prove very costly for local governments responsible for settling claims and covering legal expenses.

And some advocates say that there is not enough data to truly understand how effective the state’s initial pursuit policy was.

“It’s really premature for this initiative to have been proposed and adopted,” said Andrew Villeneuve, the executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “This is really more about the politics for them than the policy.”

The Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs endorsed the measure, saying local pursuit authority is especially important in areas with high rates of car thefts and organized retail thefts, Executive Director Teresa Taylor wrote in an email to Stateline. “The top down, statewide, legislative restrictions were negatively impacting the relationship between law enforcement and the public, a relationship our members care deeply about.”

Limited data and standards

Data on police chases, crashes and fatalities is limited and likely undercounted. While the federal government collects data on fatal crashes, that system relies on the accuracy of information coming from individual police departments. And some departments do not collect or release this data publicly.

Milwaukee, one of the few cities with comprehensive, public pursuit data, saw a dramatic increase in the number of chases resulting in accidents and injuries following a series of restriction rollbacks that began in 2015. In 2022, the number of pursuits reached 1,028, a staggering fifteenfold increase compared with 2010, when there were only 68 pursuits, according to the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission’s 2022 report. The apprehension rate, which measures the percentage of people caught or detained by police following a pursuit, declined from 91.2% in 2010 to 38% in 2022.

An investigation this year by the San Francisco Chronicle, which compiled data from the federal government, private research organizations and news reports, found that at least 3,336 people across the country were killed in pursuits from 2017 through 2022. Most of the pursuits in the Chronicle’s database began over traffic offenses, nonviolent crimes or no crime at all.

One out of 15 people killed in these cases were drivers pursued for suspected violent crimes.

More than half of the fatalities were either non-driving passengers in fleeing vehicles or bystanders. Officers accounted for less than 1% of those killed. The Chronicle’s analysis also found that Black people were killed at a rate four times higher than white people.

“Rollbacks [of strict pursuit policies] ignore a slew of data indicating how immensely dangerous vehicle pursuits are, both to officers and members of the public,” Josh Parker, senior counsel with the New York University Policing Project, said in an interview with Stateline.

There are no national standards or guidelines for when police chases are allowed, according to Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a national nonprofit think tank on policing standards.

But in September 2023, it released a report urging law enforcement agencies to refrain from initiating pursuits unless a violent crime has occurred and the suspect poses an imminent threat to others.

The report, which was written by a committee of experts and policing executives and funded by the federal Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says chases should be rare because the dangers of pursuits to suspects, officers and bystanders often outweigh the urgency of apprehending a suspect.

The report also offers guidance for police departments in crafting pursuit policies that outline when to initiate chases and when to call them off.

Fatal crashes involving police pursuits peaked at 483 in 2022, marking the highest figure since at least 2020 when there were 464 fatal crashes, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency’s data is the sole national source of pursuit-related data, albeit likely incomplete.

“If you don’t have a strong policy, then you’re putting your officers at a higher risk — the public and the people, the suspects,” Wexler said in an interview. “Policy matters, training matters and supervision matters. Four hundred people dying a year is way too many. We can do better than that.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.

©2024 States Newsroom. Visit at stateline.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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