ATLANTA — Following what experts call a “significant” increase in police chases that leave hundreds of people dead and many more injured each year, a new study is urging law enforcement agencies across the county to re-evaluate their policies governing pursuits and weigh their risk against their reward.
The report, released Tuesday by Washington-based think tank Police Executive Research Forum, says data that shows an increasing number of injuries stemming from pursuits suggests that engaging in one may “not always be worth the risks,” particularly when there are other means of apprehending a suspect.
The study comes as police departments across the country continue to face broad scrutiny over various policies and officer conduct that some say favor gaining compliance and bringing people into custody over ensuring public safety.
In the U.S., there were 455 fatal crashes that resulted from police pursuits in 2020, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 23.5 percent of police chases had a “negative outcome,” including crashes, injuries and property damage.
The report says that while bringing someone who has committed crimes that harmed the community “certainly advances the interest of public safety,” vehicle pursuits can also place the public in harm’s way if not performed thoughtfully.
“Discretion in policing has always been viewed as a good thing,” Police Executive Research Forum Executive Director Chuck Wexler told the Journal-Constitution. “We want police officers to exercise discretion and not simply enforce the law. However, in this case, stipulating that police only engage in a high-risk endeavor like the pursuit for a violent crime and an imminent threat is really the kind of parameter you want police to have. You don’t want police to be engaging in a high-risk activity that endangers the life of the police officer, the suspect and the third party.”
The Police Executive Research Forum study was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and makes more than 60 recommendations for how agencies can improve their pursuit policies and minimize the risk to the public, officers and suspects.
It encourages agencies to move away from more permissive pursuit policies, enact more restrictive ones that limit the circumstances under which an officer can initiate a chase, and require more supervisory oversight. An agency might, for example, prohibit pursuits that begin over a minor traffic infraction or require a supervisor to give approval to an officer before they can chase a driver.
“It emphasizes that the guiding principle driving an agency’s vehicle pursuit policy should always remain the sanctity of human life,” Wexler wrote in the study’s introduction. “That must be the North Star to which all details of an agency’s policy and its implementation and enforcement should point.”
Every year, more people die during police pursuits in Georgia than in most other states, even after accounting for differences in population, according to an independent analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Over a five-year period ending in 2021, more than 180 people were killed in crashes that resulted from these pursuits in Georgia — the third most in the country, according to a Journal-Constitution analysis of traffic death data from the National Highway Safety Administration. Many of those killed were bystanders or passengers, not the person police were chasing.
In 2020, the Atlanta Police Department halted police pursuits altogether, citing a number of chases that killed or injured innocent drivers. A year later, the department reversed course on its no-chase policy but kept in place a relatively restrictive rule that prohibits officers from engaging in pursuits unless they “have direct knowledge” that the fleeing suspect has committed or tried to commit a felony.