Police pursuits and policy

James Phillps lives in Winter Park, Fla., with his wife Patti. Their 20-year-old daughter Sarah was killed in December 2001 as the result of a police pursuit. He started the Web site PursuitWatch in March 2003.

Quite often we hear that the pursue/no pursue decision in police chases has to be made in a split second, and that we should allow some latitude to officers if they don’t follow policy or make poorly reasoned choices or that pursuit policy should give space for wide discretion in pursuits.

I can best demonstrate the fallacy of this line of reasoning by relating it to my teaching my son how to pitch in baseball. Before each pitch I taught my son to concentrate on visualizing the pitch. Curveball, fastball or change? In or away, up or down? Where was the batter likely to hit the ball if he was able to handle the pitch? What inning was it? How many outs? What was the score? What was he going to do if the batter bunted or if a base runner decided to steal?

With a good baseball player there are rarely any surprises—he knows what he is going to do in virtually any situation. Courses of action dictated by the rules of the game, the percentages, his experience and by hours of practice—and all before he took a deep breath in preparation for his windup.

Good police officers do the same. Before they ever “light up” a vehicle, they have already considered what they will do if the suspect vehicle does not respond appropriately:

1. Does my department’s pursuit policy permit me to pursue this suspect?

2. Are there other means of apprehension?

3. Are there any conditions present (traffic, weather, time of day etc.) that make pursuit too dangerous?

4. What is the likely outcome of the pursuit?

Life or death decisions? To be sure. Decisions made on the fly or in a split-second? Not by good, well trained officers.

A pursuit is a disaster waiting to happen. What may politically pass for a tough “law-and-order” attitude condoning all pursuits is nothing more than a careless disregard for public safety. Most of the work has already been done. Volumes of research and decades of data collecting dictate strategies that maximize the safety of the public—and those involved in pursuits—and allow the apprehension of dangerous criminals.

To put an excited officer in the position of having to reinvent the wheel each and every time he is faced with a pursue/no pursue situation borders on malfeasance, and the citizens of your city and those who travel there have a real reason for concern.

The Prianos’ efforts [to see creation of a statewide police pursuit policy] are not rooted in the emotions of two parents’ sorrow. They are rooted solidly in what are “best practices” for police departments country-wide, and their determined efforts are inspired by parents’ sorrow.