Police officers have to make complicated, split-second decisions every day — and whether or not to chase a fleeing suspect is no exception. And they often have to make this decision while driving a car at very high speeds.
Kansas City area police chief Steve Beamer says they don’t make it lightly. “We have to continually balance the need to apprehend that individual who chooses to flee against the safety of the public that may be at risk because of the pursuit,” Beamer says.
The risk is that the pursuit will cause a crash, killing police and innocent bystanders. Based on data from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Kansas Department of Transportation and an analysis of news articles from the last 10 years, there have been at least 706 pursuit crashes that have killed at least 23 people in the Kansas City area in the last 10 years. Hundreds more were injured, including 11 police officers. Police consultant Chuck Drago says nationally between 300 and 400 people are killed each year because of pursuits.
“As far as we can tell, it’s pretty much been stable for many, many, many years, and the numbers are sometimes difficult to pin down,” Drago says. It’s difficult because the reporting is voluntary.
Aaron Ambrose is a former Kansas City area police chief who says most of the time, pursuits just aren’t worth it. But there are exceptions.
“Now, if somebody’s grabbed a little kid and they’re holding them hostage — some guy went into the neighborhood and snatched up a kid and they’re driving around — I say we follow them until the wheels fall off. You’re never going to let that vehicle out of your sight regardless,” Ambrose says.
Technology could help cut down on the number of pursuits. Police already use helicopters and may use drones in the future. There’s also StarChase, a system that shoots a GPS-tracking dart from the front of a police car onto a fleeing vehicle.
“We’ve had officers that have tagged vehicles and report back that instead of jumping in their car and flying up to 100 miles an hour, they walked back to their vehicle, they get on the radio with dispatch, and they coordinate the takedown using the GPS and there’s no need for high speeds,” says company president Trevor Fischbach.
But StarChase is expensive. It costs about $5,000 per car.
Police agencies also have policies in place spelling out who officers are allowed to chase and how fast they can drive. But in Kansas City there are two states, six counties and dozens of municipalities — and all have differing policies. Some allow chases for a minor traffic violations. Others only allow pursuits of violent felons.
Jonathan Farris, former head of the group PursuitSAFETY, says there need to be more consistent policies. Even though he lost his son in a pursuit crash near Boston eight years ago, he thinks banning all pursuits is not realistic.
“I think it’s a reduction in police pursuits, not an elimination of police pursuits, and that reduction, again, the simplest way to do that is to say the only thing that is important enough to put other citizens in danger is to pursue violent felons only,” he says.
Of course, an officer might not yet know who’s running away, and that’s why activists like Farris want policy reform that will make police pursuits both more efficient and safer for everyone in in their paths.