A veteran Rockport police officer has come under scrutiny after a high-speed chase he led in Union last December ended with a car crash that left two teenagers dead.
High-speed chases make for great adrenaline-soaked Hollywood action flicks; however, a growing body of research shows that the risks in real life to the officer, suspect and bystanders from pursuits often outweigh the potential benefit of a suspect’s immediate apprehension.
In response to this growing body of research and public concern about safety, a majority of police departments in Maine and nationally have adopted more restrictive policies governing when an officer may engage in a high-speed chase.
One of the more comprehensive studies of trends in high-speed chases is a 2008 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a Chicago-based law enforcement advocacy group. Researchers working with the association examined records of 7,737 pursuits between 2001 and 2007 that 56 police agencies submitted to an online database.
The authors found that a quarter of all high-speed chases ended when either the pursuing officer or suspect crashed. Suspects were most at risk for injury, accounting for 65 percent of all chase-related injuries. The next most at-risk group wasn’t police officers but bystanders, who accounted for 21 percent of chase-related injuries.
Agencies reported that 81 percent of chase-related injuries were minor, while 16 percent of injuries were serious. While fatalities occurred in only 3 percent of chase-related crashes, suspects and bystanders were most at risk for dying as a result of a high-speed chase.
Unlike their long-lasting Hollywood counterparts, most high-speed chases end within five minutes after an officer turns on the blue lights. So the pursuing officer has only a small window in which to resolve the chase safely.
Half of all crashes happen within the first two minutes of an officer engaging in a pursuit, and 83 percent happen within five minutes, according to a 1998 report by the National Institutes of Justice. The fatal chase in Union last December lasted about four minutes before the fleeing suspect crashed.
Some 72 percent of high-speed chases end for reasons beyond the control of the pursuing officers, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police report. By and large, the suspect has the most control over the situation, with pursuits ending because the suspect willingly stopped, crashed or successfully eluded the officer. Only 9 percent of pursuits ended because the officer discontinued the chase.
“When police agencies consider the costs and benefits of pursuits, they should also note this high level of uncertainty and lack of control that they often have during pursuit situations, which can certainly increase the ante for choosing to pursue,” the report reads.
Given the high risk of injury or death for an officer, suspect or bystander during a chase, a majority of departments nationwide since the 1990s have adopted more restrictive policies to limit pursuits. Half of those policies allow pursuits only for more serious offenses, such as violent felonies, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s model pursuit policy that serves as the baseline for Maine police departments, for instance, advises officers to pursue a suspect only when he or she poses an imminent threat to the public or if the suspect has committed a violent crime.
Minor offenses such as traffic violations are a no-go for high-speed chases under most circumstances.
“Under many conditions, abandoning a pursuit may be the most prudent decision a law enforcement officer can make,” the policy reads.
It advises further that an officer abandon a chase once the suspect has been identified and the officer is confident the suspect can safely apprehended later.
Even though policies discourage high-speed pursuits for minor violations, only 9 percent of pursuits reviewed as part of the International Association of Chiefs of Police report involved suspects who committed a violent felony.
Police in 42 percent of pursuits were chasing people suspected of violating a traffic law. In another 18 percent of cases, police chased people suspected of driving stolen cars, and another 15 percent of cases involved people suspected of driving while intoxicated.
Pursuit policies, including the state’s model policy, give officers flexibility to determine whether the risks posed by chasing a suspect outweigh the benefits of apprehension. Because officers can easily get wrapped up in the chase, a supervisor has the authority under Maine’s model policy to call off a pursuit at any time if the conditions become too hazardous.
In some cases, pursuing a suspect for a traffic violation may be the most prudent decision. But once an officer switches on the blue lights and gives chase, what began as a routine traffic stop becomes far more dangerous and unpredictable.
Counterintuitively, suspects concerned about the punishment from running from the police are five times more likely to take extreme risks to evade police, according to a 1998 study in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior, one of the only studies to examine high-speed chases from the suspect’s perspective. Of the suspects surveyed for the study, more than two-thirds who reported they were concerned for their safety during a chase were willing to take extreme risks to evade police. About half of suspects were willing to run at all costs.
“Rather than providing a deterrent effect, thinking about the punishment apparently acted as an incentive to try harder to escape,” the study reads.
In fact, the study suggests the safest way for an officer to end a high-speed chase is slow down and turn off the blue lights. Once the suspect sees the officer isn’t in pursuit, the suspect will resume driving at safe speeds within 2 miles, removing the risk to the public.
After all, a suspect can usually be safely arrested a little further down the road.