Politics

Why Police Pursuits Keep Killing People

A police car seen on a Manhattan street
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The teenager who filmed the murder of George Floyd last summer wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that one of her own family members had been killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Darnella Frazier, the 18-year-old who was given a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for the video, said that her uncle, Leneal Lamont Frazier, had been killed when his car was struck by a police officer speeding down a residential road in pursuit of a robbery suspect. “It’s not fair how the police can just go around killing people,” Frazier wrote. “You took an innocent life trying to catch someone else.”

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Data show that police chases often kill suspects, officers, and innocent bystanders like Frazier, and very rarely manage to stop further violence. Thousands of people have been killed in these high-speed pursuits over the years, and yet the practice continues. Victims’ advocates and police reformers have repeatedly called for police departments to put an end to the car chase. And they have found that the nature of law enforcement in the U.S.—the patchwork of policies, the culture and attitudes within departments, the instinct to step in and protect the officers—have made it impossible to put a stop to these avoidable deaths.

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It’s not uncommon for a bystander to be killed by a police pursuit. As the Washington Post put it in 2015, police chases are deadlier than tornadoes, lighting, and hurricanes combined. In 2015, USA Today found that in the previous three-and-a-half decades, more than 5,000 bystanders and passengers had been killed from police pursuits—and more than 11,500 people had been killed in total from police chases in that period. But unlike other, more personally violent uses of force, such as putting someone in a headlock or tasing them, car chases haven’t featured heavily in public discussions about police conduct despite the fact that they probably “injure or kill more innocent bystanders than any other kind of force,” says Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina.

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According to Alpert, a leading expert on police pursuits, there has been a shift over the decades in police practices. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, he said, police had a Wild West attitude. “It was, basically, chase them ‘til the wheels fall off.” No one cared about safety until the ‘80s, he said, when some began to worry about the officers’ safety. Advocacy groups began to push for a change, and studies came out that pointed to the practice’s death toll. The data painted a clear picture: innocent people die from police chases.

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In the early 1990s, progressive police chiefs began to implement policies to curb the practice. Victims also began to sue, and through large civil judgments, courts blasted the idea of chasing suspects over minor offenses. The movement held onto its momentum, and over the last decade, the number of departments with “restricted pursuit” policies came to outnumber departments with free-for-all attitudes. Large cities with progressive police chiefs were the first to take up the cause, but even small-town departments tend to have rules now, Alpert said.

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What are these policies? Typically, that you only can pursue a suspect believed to have committed a major, violent crime. The risk of a high-speed chase is too high otherwise. Even people who are fleeing from minor traffic offenses are operating in an irrational, fear-based state. Drunk drivers become significantly more reckless and more dangerous because of the high speeds. Police officers, too, get reckless. “They get engaged and can’t shut down emotions,” said John Firman, a professor of Justice, Law, and Criminology at American University. “It’s ‘I can’t believe this guy’s fleeing me. I’m going to catch him, hell or high water.’ The condition of the officer is not good. They’re not likely to treat the person carefully or respectfully in that moment.”

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The outcome in so many of these pursuits is a crash. “There’s no good answer with pursuits,” Alpert said. “To me, the balance is easy, and it has to be a serious offense to justify that risk.”

Despite changing policies, it’s common for these pursuits to follow from minor cases. According to USA Today, more than 89 percent of California police chases from 2002 to 2014 were for vehicle-related violations. The crimes are rarely violent. Making it all worse, Black people—both suspects and bystanders—are three times more likely to be killed in one of these incidents.

Some experts believe technology is the solution. It’s possible to tag a fleeing car with a GPS monitoring device, or track a car from a helicopter, or even stop a more advanced car remotely. But the easiest way to avoid having to chase a suspect is simply to grab a photo of a license plate or of the suspect and follow through when things are less heated. “The likelihood is the person is going to be caught the next day,” Firman said.

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But until technology presents an easier option, departments have to grapple with policy. Some departments’ policies ban pursuits for nonviolent crimes. Others tell officers to stand down if they’re in a populated areas or only to pursue if the suspect has a weapon. When a chief bans pursuits for certain scenarios, it takes away the subjective decision of whether something warrants a chase. An officer in a certain mood may decide on a given day that a person fleeing a traffic infraction is personally insulting them. Another officer, absorbed with the idea of coming out on top and making an arrest, may lose perspective, or may not stop to consider whether a response is proportionate. A clear-cut policy can aim to prevent these cases.

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But there is one major issue with this solution: compliance. According to Alpert, there’s rarely accountability, unless an officer kills someone and the courts become involved. In most cases, he said, departments back up the officer and cite a justification. That protection in turn emboldens other police officers, who feel safe conducting their own chases. For policies to matter, he said, police departments need to be willing to enforce them.

And not everyone subscribes to such a black-and-white policy. Many policies leave open room for interpretation, such as whether an officer feels a suspect is a danger to people around them. In New Jersey, for example, police killed at least 55 people in the past decade, even as department policy limited chases to times when a vehicle “is being operated so as to pose an immediate threat to the safety of another person,” according to an investigation from the Appeal. And in Minneapolis, where Frazier was killed in a pursuit over a suspected car theft, officers can only chase suspects committing “a serious and violent felony or gross misdemeanor” or if their driving is “so flagrantly reckless that the driver would pose an imminent and life-threatening danger to the public if not apprehended.”

Because of the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, the trend among police departments has been to tighten policies further, Firman said. But he felt that departments were often justified in exonerating officers who violate policies. “At the time and in the moment, they did what they thought was best to save lives,” he said. “It’s a complex area.” But he added that for the most part, high-speed pursuits should still be considered a bad outcome in almost any scenario. “The likelihood is substantial that this thing is going to go wrong.”

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