A law enforcement pursuit policy is critical in the 2020s. In a vehicle pursuit, you're dealing with a dynamically unfolding, high-liability situation. These aren't the overly-romanticized police chases from the movies where no one gets hurt and the damage is conveniently ignored for the sake of the story.
These are real-life situations where property gets damaged, and people get hurt or killed, whether it's the suspect, innocent bystanders, or even officers. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, 13,100 people were killed during police pursuits between 1973 and 2017. Of those, 2,700 were innocent bystanders.
In California, specifically, 476 people were killed in police pursuits between 2005–2020. Of those, 281 were drivers, 94 passengers, 91 bystanders, and 10 police officers. 2020 was also the deadliest year for police pursuits, with 41 people dying in crashes or other accidents during police pursuits.
Many cities and states are implementing law enforcement pursuit policies. In New Orleans, the pursuit policy only lets officers pursue suspects "when they have a reasonable suspicion that a fleeing suspect has committed or has attempted to commit a crime of violence." Not only that, "pursuits for property offenses, misdemeanor offenses, traffic, or civil infractions are prohibited."
But according to the NOPD's 2019 Use of Force Report, of the 41 pursuits officers engaged in, 17 of them (41%) were for traffic violations alone. Further, 17 people were injured during the pursuits, and of those, 11 of them were innocent bystanders.
And according to a report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Institute of Justice, 91% of police pursuits were not initiated in response to a violent crime; 42% of them involved a simple traffic violation, 18% involved a stolen vehicle, and 15% involved a suspected drunk driver.
Vehicle pursuits come with risks of property damage, injury, death, and lawsuits. With police departments facing a flagging public reputation and increased liability insurance costs, having a law enforcement pursuit policy can help reduce the chances of serious accidents and liability risks.
In this article, we'll look at the need for law enforcement pursuit policies, what should be included in them, and even resources to help your department write its own policy.
Importance of pursuit policies
The growing outrage about police pursuits are tied to the climate in our society right now, so many pursuit policies are being adjusted at different agencies amid calls for tighter regulations, as well as more lawsuits filed against different departments for injuries and deaths of bystanders.
We asked Nicholas Haupt about pursuit policies and what should go into them. Haupt is the Chief Consultant of BlueIQ, a consulting company that works with small- to medium-sized law enforcement agencies to help them achieve professional excellence.
"A pursuit policy is very important for law enforcement agencies," said Haupt. "You're dealing with a dynamically-unfolding, high-liability situation."
During a pursuit, most of the damage could come from the officers' response and the driver's reaction to it, which can create some of the highest liability and most damage. That is, the longer a pursuit goes on, the greater the risk for massive damage, injury, or death.
This is why it's important to have a good law enforcement pursuit policy written ahead of time. Lawyers on both sides can argue whether a perpetrator is solely responsible for damage and injuries they cause or if they should share the blame with the police, it's harder to make that argument when the officers directly caused any damage themselves.
"There's a lot more scrutiny over whether it's appropriate to pursue a suspect. A lot more looking at the cost benefit of lives. Nowadays, there's so much more technology available: We can use cameras to track a car, we can tell who was in it. So is it really worth pursuing if we have other means of tracking these people down?"
– Nicholas Haupt, Chief Consultant at BlueIQ
Considerations for law enforcement pursuit policies
There are a few basic models for a law enforcement pursuit policy, and those are decided by each department and agency. The pursuit policy is usually written in chronological order, much like the active shooter policy, and it details what goes into the decision-making process.
Some agencies use a hard matrix of a logic tree that only allows pursuits in certain situations: If A happens, then the response is X, but if B happens, then the response is Y.
Other agencies give a little more discretion to the officers, but give them very specific guidelines in the form of questions about road conditions, the condition of the officers' vehicles and the suspect's vehicles, traffic conditions, weather conditions, and so on.
"They should ask those questions and continue to ask those questions," Haupt said. "They should give overriding authority to a supervisor so if the supervisor doesn't feel comfortable, they can give the order to stop pursuit. That puts the onus on the officer to obey that command."
And of course, you must consider the reason for the chase in the first place. Many agencies now limit police pursuits to instances where a violent felony has occurred or officers believe it will occur. This coincides with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) 2015 pursuit policy that discourages pursuits for minor violations. Instead, they recommend a pursuit "only if the officer has a reasonable belief that the suspect, if allowed to flee, would present a danger to human life or cause serious injury."
And there are different particulars that each department has to deal with, such as the types of vehicles allowed to pursue and pursuit by unmarked vehicles. (Some agencies allow the latter, but only until marked vehicles join the pursuit). There are a lot of different administrative criteria to consider.
This is why it's important to research other departments and jurisdictions to see what their law enforcement pursuit policy entails. Look at what surrounding areas are doing, in case you're ever asked to assist, or you ask the other jurisdictions for assistance.
There are also model policies, such as the one from the Ohio Attorney General, written in cooperation with the IACP, or this one from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Once those are finished, it's important to train all officers on the policy, what's allowed, and what's not allowed. Make sure they understand the decision-making that goes into whether to initiate a pursuit and the reasons they should engage or break off.
High-speed pursuits have always been a part of policing, but the calls for tighter policies are only growing. The number of injuries and deaths during police pursuits is on the rise, even as more people are suing police departments for those deaths.
Departments that don't have a law enforcement pursuit policy will need to write one soon. Departments that haven't updated their policies in the last few years will also want to refresh them in light of new findings, best practices, and recommendations from subject matter experts.
A pursuit policy is one of the 12 crucial law enforcement policies every agency needs to save lives, even while reducing its liability risks and protecting its own officers.