Pursuits and Public Safety—A Safer Way

Drivers fleeing from the police are a regular feature for local and national news outlets. Yet, police officers are rarely acknowledged when they apprehend known flight risks through more effective means. Flight risks include drivers suspected of shoplifting, selling drugs, driving stolen vehicles, domestic disputes, and traffic violations.

Voices Insisting on PursuitSAFETY, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the lives of police officers and innocent bystanders, plans to correct this oversight.

2011 Safer Way Award
PursuitSAFETY’s 2011 Safer Way Award will recognize officers and law enforcement agencies that use innovative ways to avoid police pursuits and yet bring about the apprehension of these suspects.

The Highway Safety Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) will judge the nominees based on achievements prior to and through the year 2010. The winner’s law enforcement agency receives an all-expense paid Training Day that includes instruction by certified Emergency Vehicle Operating Course (EVOC) instructors, simulation-based driver training, a keynote speaker, and information on the need for officers to “Click It” (wear a seat belt).

PursuitSAFETY, the IACP, and Police Chief Richard Schardan of Maryville, Illinois, invite officers, law enforcement association members, and the public to submit nominations by March 31, 2011. For guidelines, official rules, and nomination forms, visit: www.pursuitsafety.org/saferway.html.

“The Safer Way Award is an important initiative for bringing attention to both the need for life-saving pursuit policies and for effective officer training,” Chief Schardan said. “We need to educate our recruits in the academy and a department’s Field Training Program about the risks of a vehicle pursuit to officers, citizens and perpetrators—to provide a knowledge base in their decision-making. Officers cannot make these life and death decisions on an ‘if.’ The officer’s responsibility is for the safety of the people. In addition, administrators need to consider the possibilities of losing an officer’s ability to work, the loss of a squad car, worker’s comp claims, and a lawsuit. It is risk management. It is protecting officers and innocent bystanders.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gathers pursuit fatalities on a voluntary basis. A 2002 FBI Bulletin notes, “The absence of mandatory reporting hampers the government’s ability to track the actual number of deaths.” Under-reporting of pursuit fatalities still exists today. According to NHTSA, crashes as a result of police pursuits kill, on average, one person a day. Sometimes, it is more than one person a day. Of those killed, at least a third are innocent bystanders. About nine officers are killed every year.

Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and a recognized international authority on police pursuits, stated that the actual number of fatalities is “three or four times higher” than NHTSA’s voluntary information. Alpert noted that bystanders killed after police stop chasing suspects—even seconds afterward—are not counted; babies and young children in the car whose driver is fleeing are cruelly counted as occupants of the fleeing vehicle; and individuals who die later—not at the crash scene—may not be reported as a pursuit fatality.

“There are very few situations where an officer would have to be involved in a pursuit,” said Chief Schardan, who serves on several advisory boards, including the Illinois Law Enforcement Agencies Data System (LEADS) Advisory Policy Board, the Southwestern Illinois College Police Academy, and PursuitSAFETY. “The purpose of a pursuit is to save lives. Pursuits should be conducted only when a driver poses an imminent threat to public safety—to prevent future injuries and deaths.”

To Chase or Not To Chase
Police officers have always used other methods to capture suspects.

In 2009, officers in Port Angeles, Washington, were successful in capturing a wanted federal fugitive. After locating the man’s vehicle, the officers closed off alleys and streets in the neighborhood and began watching the house. They placed spike strips behind his parked car. An officer trained in negotiations convinced the suspect to come out of the building and into police custody after about ten minutes.

In 2006, the Phoenix Police Department instituted a new pursuit policy that essentially allows officers only to chase people wanted for violent felony crimes. In the three-month period after Phoenix’s new policy took effect, the number of pursuits in the city fell 75 percent from the same period the year before, according to the department’s review. Still, Phoenix police say people are getting arrested, and officers have been trained to “rely more heavily on aircraft and undercover units to follow suspects and to lead patrol officers to them when they get out of their cars.”

Professionalism“The Safer Way Award will set another standard of professionalism for police officers,” said Candy Priano, founder and executive director of Voices Insisting on PursuitSAFETY. “Crashes to recover stolen vehicles taken without violence are the number one reason for deaths of innocent bystanders. Trained officers use other resources and technologies to bring about the capture of these known flight risks. Life is precious, unlike a piece of property. Children, mothers and fathers, grandparents—our loved ones—are not replaceable.”

Supporters of The Safer Way Award say it is another way to publicize that officers can and do catch drivers who flee without the chase. Fleeing from the police is no longer a viable option.

Send questions to Chief Schardan to: saferwayaward@charter.net.

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