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% 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 harms way if not performed carefully and thoughtfully.
“Discretion in policing has always been viewed as a good thing,” PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler told the AJC. “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 PERF 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 of pursuits to the public, officers and suspects.
It encourages agencies to move away from more permissive pursuit policies and 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 an Atlanta 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 and that the suspect’s escape poses an imminent danger.
The PERF report, which was the product of a working group of police professionals and experts that met over the course of a year and a half, argues pursuit-related deaths are often needless and largely preventable. If law enforcement agencies update their policies to prohibit pursuits unless the person being stopped has committed a felony and is likely to do so again, fewer people would die, the report says.
Many police agencies in Georgia allow officers to pursue for much less, including minor traffic violations. A recent report by the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, which surveyed law enforcement agencies in the state on their use of pursuits, found that about 31% have permissive policies, which allow officers broad discretion to conduct chases. In January 2023, the survey instrument for the report was sent to 403 law enforcement agencies in Georgia. Of those, 249 agencies, or 62%, completed the report and submitted the information to GACP for tabulation.
Much of the problem that leads to dangerous or deadly pursuits is the lack of a standardized chase policy across “more than 15,000 agencies” across the country, Wexler said.
“Many just pursue for whatever reason. There’s no standard. There’s not anyone saying ‘look, you have to make sure whatever pursuit you take is really necessary,’” Wexler told the AJC.
The think tank hopes its guidelines will help police agencies to adopt more stringent standards for engaging in vehicle pursuits.