Police pursuits can be risky business. But banning them might be more risky. Seattle and surrounding communities have wrestled with the...

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Police pursuits can be risky business. But banning them might be more risky.

Seattle and surrounding communities have wrestled with the issue for several years. A couple of years ago, Seattle banned police pursuits except where the driver is suspected of committing a dangerous felony. Seattle joined Bellevue, which has long banned pursuits.

Recently, a Kent police officer was hospitalized following a car accident with a fleeing felon. A King County deputy made headlines when he chased a suspect through downtown Seattle, leading to a crash.

Some in the community may want to question the practice. If police pursuits sometimes lead to accidents and can be a danger to the public, why are they allowed?

There are two sides to this story. Any person who has had a car stolen or witnessed the destruction caused by a drunken driver knows there are good reasons why police need to pursue fleeing criminals.

Like all police activity, pursuits have risks. Understanding these risks and putting them into perspective will help any community make an informed analysis of the issue.

In 1995, the California Highway Patrol did an extensive study of pursuits, analyzing more than 5,000 over a year’s period. The study quantified the risk of police pursuits and compared it with other risks to the public. It showed that a California resident had:

• A one in 7,625 chance of being killed in a routine car accident;

• A one in 20,231 chance of being killed in an alcohol-related car accident;

• A one in 4 million chance of being an innocent civilian killed in a police pursuit.

Compared with the chance of being hit by lightning — one in 600,000 — police pursuits do not pose a significant risk.

The CHP study also looked at the other side of the risk equation. It analyzed the benefits of pursuits by calculating the cost of banning them. This study determined that pursuit suspects are often charged with other significant felonies separate from the driving event. During the year studied, pursuits led to 4,000 felony arrests. If pursuits were banned, then 1,251 suspected auto thieves would have gone free. They would have been joined by 66 murder suspects, 50 kidnappers and five rapists.

And the CHP study looked at the law of unintended consequences. It theorized that career criminals make it their business to study police tactics. If a community prevents its police officers from chasing traffic offenders, then more traffic offenders will actively flee the police. Criminals will reason that they are better off speeding away and not yielding to the police, since the police are prohibited from giving chase.

In 1992, the Tampa, Fla., police department restricted pursuits only to see its rate of auto thefts skyrocket. When it rescinded the ban in 1995, there was an immediate decrease in auto thefts. And auto theft is part of a greater constellation of more serious crimes. Auto thieves steal cars to transport drugs, steal mail and commit other drug-related crimes.

As this demonstrates, the analysis of police pursuits is not as simple as some would suggest. Any community that is considering a ban on police pursuits must address the risks and benefits. It must look at statistics before and after a change in pursuit policy. It should ask itself: Are there more or fewer crimes now that the criminals know that we cannot chase them? To some of us, the answer is self-evident.

Seattle attorney Andrew Cooley is past president of the Washington Defense Trial Lawyers and author of an upcoming article on pursuits in The Police Chief magazine. Seattle attorney Steven Thorsrud is a lecturer on police pursuit liability.