Capitol police walk along Northside Drive following a crash that triggered a police search for a driver they say led officers on a chase through northwest Atlanta on March 1, 2019, before crashing into two power poles and taking off on foot. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

OPINION: Atlanta cops won’t chase bad guys. What does that mean?

The public’s first reaction to Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields’ big announcement that cops would stop chasing bad guys in vehicles was, “What in the world is wrong with you?!?”

Standing before cameras and broadcasting to the city’s collective criminal brain trust that if they speed off, they’ll be able to rob another day seemed like a harebrained policing strategy, to say the least.

However, Chief Shields didn’t want to be standing before the media last week. It was damage control. Hours earlier she sent out an email to the force saying, “The department has a zero-chase policy and this is effective immediately.” She was so emphatic that she typed it twice and put it in bold-face.

Shields said innocent people were dying from crashes and the court system too often lets off the knuckleheads after they’re caught. So, she said, the “risk/reward” ration just wasn’t worth it. At least for now.

Well, when you send out an email like that to 2,000 people, you can’t expect to keep it a secret. Police departments have lots of Chatty Cathys — it’s kind of like high school with guns and uniforms — and her email quickly was all over the place.

In the memo, Shields acknowledged her decision would be unpopular. “And more disconcerting to me personally, is that this decision may drive crime up. I get it,” she wrote.

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields sent out a department-wide email notifying officers that the department will no longer chase suspects.

The subject is emotional, no doubt. You hate to see the cops have their accelerator feet tied behind their backs and watch the criminals drive off unscathed.

Shields hates this more than anyone, she said. “This is not soft-on-crime, holding hands kinda crap,” she told me. This is a cold-eyed, potentially lifesaving actuarial move. She is going to wait to see what happens in the coming weeks.

“I want to see the impact of not pursuing, what does the data show?” she said. “I’m not going to get caught up in the noise.”

The department will then determine who gets trained and recalibrate its pursuit policy. She said the auto crime unit and members of the APEX unit (which identifies and targets violent crime trends in the city) will get enhanced driving training from the Georgia State Patrol. The GSP will chase you until your wheels fall off.

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields speaks during a news conference at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters in October 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Shields said that last year, 95 vehicles ran from Atlanta’s auto crimes unit. They chased 10. The APEX unit hasn’t been chasing for a while. For years, beat cops have been limited to chasing only when those in the car are suspects in a violent felony.

Atlanta Police Department stats show there were 36 reported police pursuits in 2017 and 28 in 2018. In 2017, 13 chases topped out over 75 mph. In 2018 it was 10.

However, that is what Shields knows about. She expressed “consternation” that many pursuits are not being reported by officers. To combat this, the department has been cracking down on violations of its chase policy for a few years, said Ken Allen, a retired officer who now works for the police union.

Allen said it’s a tough issue. “I’d imagine some of these gang members say, ‘If we flee, no one’s going to chase us.’ I think some are smart enough to figure this out.”

Still, Allen said, he tells cops who are grumbling, “Let’s look at it if it was your wife in the car” who was struck by a speeding getaway vehicle.

“We don’t want to endanger the lives of someone going out shopping,” Allen said. “I’ve seen officers never go back to work after the trauma of killing someone.”

The world of policing has evolved, Allen said, and a future with a more curtailed chase policy “is what we have to adapt to.”

Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina, is perhaps the premier researcher concerning police pursuits and has helped craft policies for hundreds of departments. He said studies show it’s a myth that crime will go up if police curtail their chases.

There are two myths,” he told me. “No. 1, if you don’t chase, everyone’s going to run. And two, that there’s a dead body in the trunk.”

By that, Alpert is referring to the notion that if someone runs from the cops, they have probably done something awful. As often as not, he said, it is some guy wanted for a nonviolent crime or some other low-level infraction.

Alpert said that solid training in conducting pursuits and having tough accountability and tracking of chases are vital for departments.

“This is no different than using a firearm,” Alpert said. “You don’t let it slip by.”

A man was killed and a bystander was nearly hit during the early morning hours of July 10, 2017, after a domestic dispute ended with a police chase and crash in south Fulton County. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Travis Yates, a major in the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Police Department who has been evangelical about training departments on safer pursuits, said chases escalate in a series of split-second decisions, and properly trained officers make better choices in those critical moments.

Driving skills and decision-making are vital, Yates said, but “departments have been so focused on the use of force, and this has not gotten the same attention.”

He added, “Chases kill many more innocent people” each year than police shootings.

An analysis of federal highway safety figures by the news site FairWarning found that “at least 13,100 people were killed in police pursuits from 1979 through 2017,” an average of 336 deaths a year, a number that has been increasing.

Also, “More than 2,700 of those killed were innocent bystanders, which includes pedestrians and people in vehicles who were hit by a fleeing suspect or in rare cases by police.”

Yates said Atlanta may be the most prominent city that has pulled back so far in its pursuit policy.

“You’re opening a door to a lot of questions in the community,” he said, adding that most people believe it is reasonable to chase violent felons.

Ne’er-do-wells and criminals who choose to run are betting that the cops aren’t as crazy as them.

And Chief Shields is betting that reduced craziness on the streets will save lives but hopefully not increase crime.

The dice have been cast.

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