High-speed pursuits: Why criminals run from the law

A recent video of a pickup truck going airborne at the end of a police pursuit has drawn a lot of media attention recently. This video, with the theme song from the eighties television show “The Dukes of Hazzard” added to it, is only one illustration of the danger and excitement involved in a police pursuit.


Whether you are a police officer, or someone who once dreamed of being “on the job,” or you have just watched “Cops” on TV and found it entertaining, some moments in law enforcement stand out in terms of excitement.

“Be advised, radio, they are not stopping!”

What now? You need to make a split-second decision. Do you let the perpetrator go? What did you become a cop for if not to catch criminals and put them in jail? Do you chase him? Pursuing a vehicle is probably the most high-risk task you will ever take as a police officer. It causes exhilaration for officers that are actively engaging in the pursuit, and stress headaches for administrators anxiously monitoring the radio.

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with law enforcement officers when it comes to high-speed pursuits in Scott v. Harris. The late Justice Antonin Scalia indicated in his delivery of the Court’s opinion that the person who flees from police and essentially necessitates a pursuit should be a factor in deciding qualified immunity for the officer. Agency policies have yet to catch up. In no uncertain terms, policy matters when it comes to whether the officers in your jurisdiction can and should pursue or not. Deterrence can depend, at least in part, on the policies and training of those that serve your community.

Pursuit policies are a constant balance of risk. Be assured that while the suspect is on foot, there is rarely any concern devoted towards how hard the police officers pursue him. As soon as they get behind the wheel of a vehicle, however, the results can quickly become deadly. A sensible pursuit policy is needed to protect the officers in your community from discipline and liability.

One police chief that I worked for throughout the nineties was fond of saying, “We’ll chase them until their wheels fall off!” His written policies could be boiled down to, “You run, we chase!” He did not shy away from it either. On one occasion, when a street supervisor tried to terminate a pursuit, the chief quickly grabbed the radio and told the officer he was authorized to continue it. A few years (and to be fair, over a hundred pursuits that did not end badly) after that incident, a different pursuit ended in a traffic crash that killed an innocent man. A significant amount of money changed hands, and the pursuit policy was soon altered. While my admiration for his approach cannot be denied, I do not dispute that some of the pursuits that happened under that administration were extremely risky to the officers and the surrounding public.

In a USA Today article from June of 2016, a shift in an Illinois pursuit policy is reported. The new policy states, “Pursuit is authorized only if the officer has a reasonable belief that the suspect, if allowed to flee, would present a danger to human life or cause serious injury” (emphasis added). Since no officer has a crystal ball, a statement such as this in a policy essentially lends administrators, and potentially a judge or jury, the ability to disagree whether that officer’s belief was “reasonable” or not.

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