September 23, 2023

Police pursuit policies should be more restrictive to save lives


PERF members,

Vehicle pursuits are part of what distinguishes the police from any other occupation. Hollywood has recognized this and featured pursuits in many films. Growing up, I remember watching Gene Hackman commandeer a citizen’s car and take it on a harrowing chase as an NYPD detective in “The French Connection.” But, as you all know, the reality of police pursuits is anything but glamorous.

Earlier this week you received PERF’s new report on pursuits. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatal crashes involving police pursuits kill more than one person every day; 525 people were killed in 2021, and 545 were killed in 2020. According to Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS) data from 2009 to 2013, 21 percent of those seriously injured in police pursuits are individuals not involved in the pursuit.

Every week seems to bring news of another avoidable tragedy. Less than three weeks ago, 16-year-old Jaiden DeJarnett died after he failed to pull over for a Decatur, Alabama police officer who attempted to stop him for a traffic violation; DeJarnett led officers on a pursuit for about 35 miles, then crashed his car into a tree. Four days later, 38-year-old Cynthia Nicole Lail and her 12-year-old son Michael died when a Hickory, North Carolina police officer attempted to pull over a motorcycle for reckless driving and failing to display a license plate; the officer pursued the motorcycle when it fled, and crashed his police vehicle into the Lails’ minivan. And one week ago, 10-year-old Jake Luxemburger was killed when Kentucky State Police troopers attempted to conduct a traffic stop and then pursued the driver when he failed to pull over; the fleeing vehicle (which police later learned was stolen) crashed into the Luxemburger family’s SUV.

While there has been research into police pursuits, no national standards have been established. To improve policy and practice around this high-risk activity, NHTSA and the Department of Justice’s COPS Office asked PERF to develop vehicular pursuit guidelines for police departments and sheriffs’ offices. PERF reviewed relevant research, studied policies from nearly 50 state and local agencies, and convened a 12-member working group. This working group, comprising law enforcement leaders and experts, met 11 times from 2020 to 2022. 

Working group member Geoff Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina, is one of the foremost experts on use of force and previously served on a working group to help PERF draft guidelines on electronic control weapons. He gave me an overview of the scope of the problem:

“One persistent finding in our research is that the vast majority of pursuits initiate from traffic and property offenses. Consistently, research shows that traffic violations and stolen cars are the primary reasons for pursuits, with those involving violent crimes hovering around 10% of all pursuits. The data, while underreported, indicates that at least one person loses their life daily as a result of a pursuit. This includes officers, members of the public (including those in the fleeing vehicle), and the fleeing suspects. Unfortunately, we lack national data on the percentage of crashes leading to other negative outcomes, but research from various agencies suggests that 30-45% of pursuits culminate in a crash.”

The report contains 65 recommendations across six topics: agency philosophy and policy standards; the role of a supervisor; pursuit interventions, pursuit alternatives, and technology for managing risks; post-pursuit reporting; training; and community engagement. We recommend that agencies only pursue suspects when two conditions are met: (1) a violent crime has been committed and (2) the suspect poses an imminent threat to commit another violent crime. 

This is a more restrictive policy than many agencies have in place, and I understand there may be some objections. Some say that pursuing fewer suspects will lead to a rise in crime. Professor Alpert shared his response to this objection:

“Over the years, we’ve also learned that not everyone flees when there’s a restrictive policy in place, and crime rates do not necessarily spike. Some cities have witnessed increases in car thefts and subsequent police pursuits, and proponents of pursuits attribute these upticks to the restrictions on chasing offenders. However, there’s no evidence to support the notion that changes in pursuit policies are fueling these thefts. In today’s digital age, social media has played a significant role in disseminating information on car theft techniques, vulnerable vehicle targets, and the perception of lenient punishment by the courts. Untangling these influences will be a critical step in our ongoing research on pursuits.”

Our working group reached consensus on our major recommendations, including that agencies only pursue suspects who have committed a violent crime and pose an imminent threat to commit another. But we did not reach consensus on the use of the precision immobilization technique (PIT). This high-risk, controversial tactic has been used successfully in some situations but has also resulted in tragic deaths. While noting that some working group members endorsed its use, the guide says that it “should be prohibited under all but very narrowly defined circumstances.”

I think the pursuit restrictions in our new report are necessary if agencies are to implement a policy that has the central goal of protecting human life. As I wrote in my introductory letter to the report, “You can get a suspect another day, but you can’t get a life back.”

I recommend you look through the entire report, which includes policy language from many agencies. I know many of you have tightened your pursuit policies in recent years, but I think every agency will find a new idea or a policy that had not previously been considered.

Thank you to our working group for devoting so much time and expertise to this project. The 12 members were: Professor Alpert; Burlington, NC Lt. Shelly Katkowski; Minnesota State Patrol Colonel Matthew Langer; Harris County, TX Chief Deputy Mike Lee; John Marshall, Director of NHTSA’s Office of Safety Programs; Charleston, SC Lt. Patrick McLaughlin; Chattanooga, TN Chief Celeste Murphy; Virginia Beach, VA Chief Paul Neudigate; Fayetteville, NC Asst. Chief James Nolette; retired New Orleans Capt. Michael A. Pfeiffer; Las Vegas Department of Public Safety Chief Jason Potts; and Charleston, SC Chief Luther Reynolds. Their broad experience contributed to the strength of the report. I’m particularly grateful that we had the opportunity to learn from Chief Reynolds, who passed away in May and was a dedicated member of the working group as he battled cancer. I also appreciate the support of the COPS Office and NHTSA, which made this project possible. And, as always, I’m grateful to the PERF staff who worked tirelessly on this project.

Have a nice weekend!