Should Police Pursuits be Limited to Violent Offenses?

"No one wants an innocent person to die because of a police pursuit," writes a former sheriff in Washington, countering critics of legislation passed by state lawmakers last year to limit police chases.

Should Police Pursuits be Limited to Violent Offenses?
police car

Photo by Emergency_Vehicles via Flickr

Limiting police chases will save lives even if there’s a danger that some guilty people will avoid capture, says a Washington sheriff.

In a column for the Seattle Times, John Urquhart, former Sheriff of King County in Washington State, defended recent state legislation limiting the circumstances an officer can pursue an individual who has committed an offense.

In 2016, a high-speed chase led to the death of a suspect in his county. The individual had stolen less than $1,000 in merchandise, quickly prompting Urquhart to change the policy to prohibit pursuits where the underlying crime was a property crime and certain other low-level crimes.

A law passed by the Washington legislature bars police from pursuing suspects fleeing in a vehicle unless:

    • There is probable cause that a person in the vehicle has committed or is committing a violent offense or sex offense;
    • There is a “reasonable suspicion” that the suspect driver is under the influence of alcohol
    • The pursuit is necessary for the purpose of identifying or apprehending the person, or the pursuit is necessary for the purpose of identifying or apprehending the person.

Several other jurisdictions currently limit police pursuits already.

Earlier this year, the Cincinnati Police Department limited police chases to “very violent offenses.” 

The Atlanta Police Department changed policy last year, only allowing pursuits if violence is suspected. And in Chicago, police are forbidden from chasing for traffic or theft offenses, reports CNN. 

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), state and local law enforcement agencies conducted an estimated 68,000 vehicle pursuits in 2012.

From 1996 to 2015, an average of 355 persons, or about 1 per day, were killed annually in pursuit-related crashes, the BJS found.

And by 2013, all state police and highway patrol agencies, 97 percent of local police departments and 96 percent of sheriffs’ offices had a written vehicle pursuit policy, according to the BJS.

“After 40 years as a police officer, I know firsthand the frustration of crime victims, and the frustration of officers and deputies when the suspect gets away,” Urquhart writes.

“But risking lives is not the solution. No one wants an innocent person to die because of a police pursuit.”

James Van Bramer is associate editor of The Crime Report.