Special Report

No Cop, No Stop?

No chase rules are allowing scofflaws to get away with whatever they want.

By 5.10.04

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Even better than a "get out of jail free" card is a "never go to jail in the first place" card -- which is more or less what police in some cities are offering crooks. Actually, it's what local politicians have offered them -- hamstringing local cops by forbidding them from engaging in (or strictly limiting) high-speed pursuits.

Concerns about innocent bystanders getting rammed by a fleeing felon -- a rare but very high-profile mess when it does happen -- have resulted in so-called "no chase" edicts being imposed (or threatened) by lawmakers in cities from Washington, D.C. to Lansing, Michigan. Some localities have set forth byzantine "rules of engagement" that almost require a bureaucrat ride-along in every squad car to act as interpreter prior to any attempted apprehension. In New Haven, Connecticut, a policy of "non-violent community policing" bans New Haven cops from joining chases begun in other towns.

All the bad guys have to do is hit the gas to get the police to put on the brakes -- a sweet deal for them, a bad one for law-abiding citizens. "We've got young people stealing cars, racing down the streets, on sidewalks and in yards, giving the finger to police," said a frustrated Washington, D.C. Council Member Kevin Chavous. "Police say they can't do anything because of the 'no chase' rule" enacted by the city fathers -- and supported by the chief of police, Charles H. Ramsey.

So how many deaths actually result from high-speed pursuits by police nationally each year? Is there a horrific body count of civilians that far outweighs aggressive pursuit of dangerous no-goodnicks?

Actually, no.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lists 314 total fatalities related to police chases in 1998, the most recent year for which data are available. Of that total, two were police officers; 198 were suspects attempting to elude police. The remaining 114 deaths involved people in unrelated vehicles who had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So in reality there hasn't been a "major increase" in mayhem -- though it has sometimes been portrayed that way by media reports. Over a five year period (from 1994 to 1998) the numbers remained about the same: 102 innocent bystander deaths in '94, 127 in '95, 118 in '96, 111 in '97 and 114 in '98.

In the context of a country with 300 million people in it, the number of innocent bystander fatalities is pretty low. NHTSA's data and the FBI's Law Enforcement Bulletin indicate that less than 1 percent of all police chases result in a fatality -- and of those, only about a third involve people not being chased by the cops.

This is not in any way to diminish the tragedy of innocent bystander deaths -- but some perspective is in order. There are on the order of 50,000-60,000 motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. every year -- more deaths every 12 months than American soldiers killed during the entire 12 years of the Vietnam War. In Washington, D.C. alone, there are easily twice the number of murders every year (262 in 2002) than the total number of innocent bystanders killed as a result of police hot pursuits nationwide.

Apprehending criminals is not kid-glove work. Saying "pretty please" doesn't often do the trick. Sometimes, force must be met with force -- and sometimes, people get hurt as a result, including the occasional innocent bystander. Most people understand this -- and would rather risk the small chance of a police chase ending up with some innocent motorist or pedestrian being harmed than essentially giving criminals the green light to run amok. Police are trained professionals who know how to handle these situations. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they get the bad guys without incident. But it's an imperfect world -- and accidents will happen.

Unfortunately, TV has distorted the reality of deaths involving high-speed pursuits. People see a gaudy wreck on the six o'clock news -- "police chase ends in disaster for local family!" -- and next day, opportunistic politicians are tub-thumping for new restrictions on the cops. Inevitably, shyster lawyers join in -- ever alert for the possibility of fat cash settlement.

Meanwhile, the bad guys cackle with glee as they 'jack their next victim -- and tear off on a fresh spree. Who is to stop them? Mañana, mañana may be a suitable policy in languid climes south of the border -- but it's not the hot ticket for getting dangerous dirtbags off the street as quickly and effectively as possible. Proponents of "no chase" policies are basically telling the cops -- and the public -- to just sit tight and wait until the four-wheeled Visigoths tucker themselves out.

Well, if that's to be the new standard -- how about those oh-so-dangerous pistols most cops pack? Think of all the lives that could be saved! Of course, a disarmed cop sitting in a squad car he's not allowed to chase suspects in isn't good for much beyond eating donuts and running a radar gun.

It's safer work, of course.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.