But things are changing. Almost all U.S. law enforcement agencies have adopted a restrictive pursuit policy, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). Much to the dismay of TV executives, most cops will no longer conduct long chases that start when the officer tries to pull a motorist over for a broken taillight (though cops still chase suspected felons and other serious bad guys.) Before restrictive-pursuit policies, often the worst thing that officers found at the end of a chase was a suspended license, an ashtray full of seeds and stems, or empty beer cans in the pickup bed. Now, many law enforcement agencies have decided that it's not worth the danger when such chases could cause the death of the suspect, an officer, or an innocent.
Let's take a step back in time: From the 1980s until early in this century, almost 350 people died during police pursuits each year. More than 30 percent of those were innocent bystanders. And about one-third of all pursuits ended in a wreck. (We should note that these statistics are fuzzy: Cops don't like to tattle on themselves or each other. A nonprofit group called Pursuit Safety, dedicated to reducing deaths resulting from police chases, ignores government reports in its own research because it says the data is incomplete.
Few who flee the police are violent felons. Instead, they are usually 20-something males with bad driving records. A classic from the early 1980s showed that just 5 percent of those who fled from highway patrol officers had been charged with an armed offense previously, and just 0.3 percent had been convicted. And when chases end badly, taxpayers foot the bill for a multimillion-dollar ruling in court, worker's compensation costs from injured officers, and replacing expensive cruisers.
In 2004, when I completed the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy Driver Instructor course, chief instructor James Vaughan spent a notable portion of the five-day program energetically encouraging the class, filled with officers from departments across the state, to limit high-speed pursuits. Vaughan showed a video of a sheriff haphazardly ramming a fleeing car, causing it to flip and eject the driver and her young child. "The driver ran because she had a small amount of crack," Vaughan said. "Can you shoot someone for having a little rock?" After a long period one officer finally uttered a quiet, "No."
Nine years later, Vaughan says he no longer needs to preach so fervently. "Departments and officers now accept they have to weigh the risk of the chase against the need to apprehend," he says. "Chasing someone for a gas drive-away doesn't makes sense. Chasing someone through a crowded mall parking lot doesn't make sense. At 1 am with no traffic on an empty highway and a suspect car that matches a description of one involved in a robbery . . . well, then a chase may be appropriate."
About one-fifth of police departments allow pursuits only for felony offenses, while half require the pursuit to end when the suspect has been identified, according to the IACP study. "Ending the pursuit" often means the officer must switch off his lights and siren, stop, and turn around. Vaughan says departments commonly require the permission of a supervisor to allow or continue a pursuit. The new limited-pursuit policies mean that if an officer is chasing someone, the officer—and his supervisors—believes the suspect has done something really bad.
Still, not pursuing a suspect is hard for some cops to accept. "[It's] a difficult pill for some officers, especially the less experienced, to swallow," Vaughan says. "They perceive a fleeing suspect as something personal." The authors of (Nolo Press) label running from the police "contempt of cop."
But times change, especially in a society prone to high-dollar litigation. "Chasing was far more prominent back in the day when there was not as much training and officers had more leeway," Vaughan says. "There's been evolution of the profession through better training and better policies. Also, departments that have experienced litigation are encouraged to change their policies by insurance-fund administrators."
Will limited-pursuit polices cause more drivers to flee, knowing police regulations restrict high-speed pursuits? An IACP study found no evidence to support that. Also, interviews people who have fled from the police, conducted by the National Institute of Justice, revealed that the offenders returned to normal driving within about 90 seconds of the chase's being abandoned.
And cops are learning to live with restraint. "We'll get them next time," an Illinois State Police officer told me. "They'll screw up again soon enough."