Dangers of Police Chases

As more people begin to question the policies and procedures of police departments, the traditional police chase has come under fire. The Police Brutality Center is committed to highlighting the dangers of police chases, including the destruction of public property and civilian injuries and fatalities. If you or a loved one were traumatized or injured during a police chase, we can connect you with a civil rights lawyer to discuss your options.

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Content Last Updated: July 10, 2024

For people who have only ever seen a high-speed pursuit on television, the danger of police chases may not seem an immediate concern. Law enforcement departments nationwide use this tactic regularly, often without public scrutiny. However, as Americans have become more aware of the prevalence of police misconduct, many have started questioning the suitability of police chases, especially given the mounting deaths, injuries, and property damage resulting from chase-related crashes. 

Many police departments now restrict the use of police chases via no-pursuit policies. For instance, as of 2022, Cincinnati officers may only pursue violent felony offenders. Several cities, including Chicago and Atlanta, explicitly instruct police to prioritize public safety over chasing non-violent suspects. 

Yet, police chases continue to injure and kill innocent people. At the Police Brutality Center, we help victims find legal representation and seek justice. We also educate the public on the dangers of police chases, why they occur, and how police departments can apprehend suspects in other ways.

Why Are Police Chases Used?

Police officers use high-speed chases, or so-called “pursuit driving,” when an offender attempts to evade capture by fleeing in a motor vehicle. In most cases, the offender ignores speed limits and other traffic laws to escape.

Many incidents can prompt a police chase, and the initiating event isn’t always a violent crime. In one 2020 report, the top two reasons police initiate chases were minor traffic violations and suspected stolen vehicles.

However, given the danger of police chases, many departments have begun restricting the scenarios in which officers can use pursuit driving. The most common restrictions relate to the crimes that warrant a vehicle pursuit.

Chicago police may not pursue a vehicle if theft or a non-substance-related traffic violation is the most severe offense involved. In Washington state, officers may only engage in a pursuit if they have probable cause that the person has committed a violent or sexual offense or has been driving under the influence of substances. The suspect must also pose a more significant threat than the risk of the pursuit.

These laws reflect a national trend to limit police chase to violent, sexual, and drug-related offenses, though the specific regulations vary by location.

What Is the Danger of Police Chases?

Police chases pose a severe danger to public safety, and the risk appears to be increasing. In 2020, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded 455 fatal crashes involving police pursuits. That number is the highest since 2007 when authorities recorded 374 fatalities.

In Texas, authorities have reported twice as many chase-related deaths in 2021 versus 2011. One of the most recent deaths involved a 57-year-old civilian ejected from his car when it collided with a police vehicle giving chase. The officers were chasing an allegedly stolen car.

Police chases also pose serious risks to pedestrians. Fleeing vehicles may disregard red lights or swerve onto sidewalks, as in a 2020 crash involving a Boston pedestrian. These accidents also endanger public and private property, including occupied public transit vehicles.

The risk is even higher when weather and road conditions are not optimal. High speeds increase vehicles’ likelihood of slipping or spinning on water or ice. Unexpected roadblocks, potholes, and other hazards may be impossible for pursuers or pursued to avoid. These and other unforeseen events increase the dangers of police chases.

What Is the Psychological Impact of Police Chases?

Witnessing a police chase can be upsetting and even traumatic. Imagine going about your day when a car starts racing through the neighborhood at double the speed limit, running red lights as a siren wails behind. 

It could be even more distressing if the car suddenly jumped the sidewalk or ran a red light, narrowly missing a pedestrian or other vehicle. Now, imagine how it would feel if the car didn’t miss.

Witnessing a fatal accident is a frequent cause of post-traumatic stress disorder. Those with PTSD may experience flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, and hypervigilance.

Witnessing a chase may also exacerbate the pre-existing fear and mistrust of police. Research shows that exposure to police violence often leads to police anxiety and avoidance, particularly for Black people, who are disproportionately the victims of police brutality. For individuals with previous police trauma, witnessing a chase can have serious mental health consequences.

What Are the Legal and Ethical Concerns of Police Chases?

Police departments have internal guidelines for police pursuits, but these protocols are not always clear. For example, the San Diego Police Department’s pursuit procedures require officers to “evaluate the risks” of high-speed chases. 

Such potentially subjective guidelines are challenging to evaluate and enforce. They also place the burden of life-and-death decisions on officers involved in emotionally charged situations.

Even when conducted legally, police chases pose an inherent threat to public safety. No policy can keep bystanders completely safe when vehicles operate at high or moderate speeds, especially when fleeing or chasing causes driver distraction. This fact calls into question whether police chases can happen ethically.

What Are Alternative Solutions to Police Chases?

Car chases are no longer the only option for officers to apprehend a fleeing suspect. One prevalent example is StarChase, a device that tags a fleeing vehicle with a GPS tracker. The tracker allows officers to coordinate a secure arrest while maintaining public safety.

Another option is the Grappler police bumper, which deploys from the pursuing vehicle to entangle the suspect’s rear wheel, effectively dragging it to a stop.

Additional options are being developed, including devices that remotely shut down a reportedly stolen vehicle. Meanwhile, police departments can use tire spike strips, simple devices that safely pierce a fleeing car’s tires to bring it to a stop.

How Can Communities Advocate for the Danger of Police Chases?

Civilian communities have the power to stand up against police misconduct, including the risky use of vehicle pursuits. Options range from group actions, such as petitions or protests at a local police station, to individual actions, such as publications in local news outlets.

For example, the Wisconsin Examiner recently reported on a mother and son hit in a police chase. The report raised questions about whether the outcome of a police chase is worth the risk to civilian lives.

Supporting and joining police reform organizations are other ways private citizens can advocate against police chases. PursuitSAFETY focuses explicitly on finding safer alternatives to police pursuits. The organization also supports survivors of pursuit-related accidents.

Protecting Citizens From the Harm of Police Chases

The dangers of police chases are real and serious. Googling “police chase fatality” brings up dozens of reports of deaths and injuries resulting from chases, including a three-year-old child hurt when a fleeing vehicle hit a school bus.

Legal action is a powerful way for victims and their families to hold police departments and civil governments accountable. If you or someone you love was injured during a police chase, speak with a lawyer regarding your legal options.

The Police Brutality Center provides education and resources to assist victims of police misconduct. We may be able to refer you to an experienced lawyer specializing in civil rights cases to help you pursue the justice you deserve. Contact us to get legal help.