“The police shouldn’t have been chasing him. That was a big crowded street,” said Evelyn Viverette, 83, mother of federal worker Charlie Viverette. “He wouldn’t have hit my son if the police hadn’t been chasing him.”
Some police say drivers who flee are suspicious, and chasing them maintains law and order. “When crooks think they can do whatever they choose, that will just fester and foster more crimes,” said Milwaukee Police Detective Michael Crivello, who is president of the city’s police union.
Many in law enforcement, including the Justice Department, have recognized the danger of high-speed chases and urge officers to avoid or abort pursuits that endanger pedestrians, nearby motorists or themselves. At least 139 police have been killed in chases, federal records show.
“A pursuit is probably the most unique and dangerous job law enforcement can do,” said Tulsa Police Maj. Travis Yates, who runs a national pursuit-training academy.
The Justice Department called pursuits “the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities” in 1990 and urged police departments to adopt policies listing exactly when officers can and cannot pursue someone. “Far more police vehicle chases occur each year than police shootings,” the department said.
Police chases have killed nearly as many people as justifiable police shootings, according to government figures, which are widely thought to under count fatal shootings. Yet chases have escaped the national attention paid to other potentially lethal police tactics.
Despite the Justice Department’s warning, the number of chase-related deaths in 2013 was higher than the number in 1990 — 322 compared to 317, according to records of the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which analyzes all fatal motor-vehicle crashes.
Many police departments still let officers make on-the-spot judgments about whether to chase based on their perception of a driver’s danger to the public. Officers continue to violate pursuit policies concerning when to avoid or stop a chase, police records show. And federally funded high-tech systems that would obviate chases, such as vehicle tracking devices, are undeveloped or rarely used due to cost.
While cities such as Milwaukee and Orlando allow chases only of suspected violent felons, many departments let officers chase anyone if they decide the risk of letting someone go free outweighs the risk of a pursuit.
At least 11,506 people, including 6,300 fleeing suspects, were killed in police chases from 1979 through 2013, most recent year for which NHTSA records are available. That’s an average of 329 a year — nearly one person a day.
But those figures likely understate the actual death toll because NHTSA uses police reports to determine if a crash was chase-related, and some reports do not disclose that a chase occurred.
Kansas, Michigan and Minnesota state records all show more chase-related deaths than NHTSA shows for those states.
“It’s an embarrassment,” said Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina, a leading researcher on police pursuits who has done numerous Justice Department studies. NHTSA records “are the only national database we have on these fatalities, and it’s been consistently wrong.”
The number of innocent bystanders killed is impossible to pinpoint because hundreds of NHTSA’s records fail to show whether a victim was killed in a car fleeing police or in a car that happened to be hit during a chase.
Analyzing each fatal crash, USA TODAY determined that at least 2,456 bystanders were killed, although the death toll could be as high as 2,750. The newspaper found that 55% of those killed were drivers fleeing police. They ranged from armed-robbery suspects to a 10-year-old boy chased as he drove a pick-up truck 85 mph on a county road before hitting a tree, killing himself and his 7-year-old passenger.
Injuries are even harder to count because NHTSA keeps records of only fatal crashes.
However, records from six states show that 17,600 people were hurt in chases from 2004 through 2013 — an average of 1,760 injuries a year in those states, which make up 24% of the U.S. population.
Those numbers suggest that chases nationwide may have injured 7,400 people a year — more than 270,000 people since 1979.
The uncertainty about the death and injury tolls obscures the danger of police chases, said Jonathan Farris, who became an advocate for pursuit safety after his son Paul, 23, was killed in 2007 by a motorist being chased for an illegal driving maneuver. “If the public understood the number of pursuits that were going on and the number of people who were being injured or killed, there would be a much better dialogue as to what types of crimes should be pursued,” Farris said.
Minor infractions trigger chases
“IT COULD HAVE BEEN TED BUNDY”
Although police-camera footage often depicts the drama of squad cars racing after motorists, most chases begin benignly, with an attempted traffic stop. And most end quickly — 76% were over within five minutes, according to records of tens of thousands of chases in California.
California records of 63,500 chases from 2002 through 2014 show that:
- More than 89% were for vehicle-code violations, including speeding, vehicle theft, reckless driving, and 4,898 instances of a missing license plate or an expired registration
- Just 5% were an attempt to nab someone suspected of a violent crime, usually assault or robbery; 168 sought a known murder suspect
- Nearly 1,000 were for safety violations that endangered a driver only, including 850 drivers not wearing a seat belt and 23 motorcycle riders not wearing a helmet
- In 90 instances, police chased someone for driving too slowly
“We don’t know that the person in that car is just speeding or just had a headlight out … [or] if they had just committed a felony,” said Joseph Farrow, commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, which chased 14,628 motorists from 2007 through 2014, resulting in 4,052 crashes, 2,198 injuries and 103 deaths.
That’s a 28% crash rate and a 15% injury rate.
Minnesota safety researchers found in 2008 that 35% to 40% of chases resulted in a crash.
“There’s no question that when you’re engaging in a chase, you’re engaging in something that can turn out many ways, and many are bad outcomes,” said John Firman of theInternational Association of Chiefs of Police, whose survey of 17,000 chases nationally since 2001 shows that 92% began for a traffic violation, misdemeanor or non-violent felony such as car theft.
Police often suspect fleeing drivers are wanted for a serious offense. And they dislike letting a violator get away. During a chase police can be overcome by “a need to ‘win’ and make the arrest,” which blinds them to the danger they are helping create, a 2010 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin reported.
“These are folks who are proud and who see their job as going out and putting the bad guy in jail,” said Assistant Chief Randall Blankenbaker of the Dallas Police Department, which sharply restricts chases.
When police in Beech Grove, Ind., were called June 8 at 8:07 a.m. about a shoplifting from aWalmart, they pulled behind the suspect’s car in a parking lot and flashed their emergency lights. Driver Matthew Edmonds allegedly sped off on a busy thoroughfare, with police chasing for four miles until stopping because of the danger. Moments later, Edmonds allegedly sped through an intersection and hit a pick-up truck driven by 63-year-old Donna Niblock, killing her and seriously injuring her daughter and 11-year-old grandson.
The chase followed department guidelines, which allow “high-risk” pursuits for drivers suspected of property crimes, Beech Grove Detective Capt. Robert Mercuri said.
“We don’t know who may be in that vehicle. We don’t know if they have somebody tied up in the back seat,” Mercuri said. “It could have been Ted Bundy.”
Few drivers fleeing police are wanted felons, according to statistics and research. Most committed minor offenses and “made very bad decisions to flee,” a 2008 paper by the Police Foundation said.
In Pennsylvania, records of 32,000 chases since 1997 show that the most common charge against fleeing drivers was theft, including stealing or illegally possessing the car they were driving. The other most-frequent charges were resisting arrest, underage drinking and misdemeanor assault.
A Justice Department-funded 1998 study found after interviewing fleeing drivers that 32% drove off because they were in a stolen car, 27% because they had a suspended driver’s license, 27% wanted to avoid arrest and 21% because they were driving drunk.
“Overwhelmingly, someone is fleeing because they’ve got a minor warrant, their car isn’t insured, they’ve had too much to drink,” said Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, who sharply restricted his department’s pursuits in 2010 after four bystanders were killed in a three-month span.
For more serious offenses such as stealing a vehicle, “the sanctions imposed by courts nationwide for merely stealing a car don’t justify anybody taking any risk,” Flynn said.
On June 15, 2012, at 3:20 p.m., Austin, Texas, police chased a driver in a stolen pickup truck at 90 to 95 mph onto a highway and along a frontage road lined with service stations and fast-food restaurants. At an intersection, the truck slammed into a Mitsubishi driven by James Williford, 32, killing him instantly.
Driver Reynaldo Hernandez was convicted of murdering Williford and sentenced to 55 years. The Austin police chief cleared the two officers, saying they followed the policy of the department, which had been cracking down on auto thefts.
Williford’s widow Esther Seoanes holds the officers responsible for deciding to chase a stolen car.
“My husband,” Seoanes said, “was essentially killed for a stolen vehicle.”
“The moment the officer crossed over the median with lights and sirens and started the pursuit, he (Hernandez) immediately turned into one of those criminals and suspects who doesn’t care about anything,” said Seoanes, executive director of PursuitSAFETY, a nonprofit seeking to reduce chase-related deaths. “Drivers, they don’t care about anyone’s safety, and so the burden falls on the police to protect the public.”
Austin police declined to comment due to Seoanes’ pending lawsuit against them.
Some relatives of killed bystanders don’t hold police responsible for deaths in chases.
“I’m not blaming the police,” Nicole Jackson of Detroit said after a driver who allegedly had a gun sped away from police on June 24 and killed Jackson’s granddaughter and grandson, age 3 and 6, while they were riding scooters near their home. “I’m blaming the person who did all this.”
High-risk chases include teens, icy roads
MOTORCYCLISTS OFTEN GET KILLED
Chases are inherently dangerous because of their speed, and police often compound the danger by chasing drivers in hazardous conditions.
At least 3,440 people were killed in crashes when a driver was fleeing at 25 mph or more over the speed limit, NHTSA records show. The actual death toll from such high-speed chases is likely much higher, but is not known because only half of NHTSA’s records show a fleeing driver’s speed and the speed limit.
Particularly dangerous are chases on wet or icy roads, and pursuits of inexperienced and risk-prone teen-age drivers and of motorcyclists, who have little crash protection.
In Michigan over the past decade, 74% of motorcyclists fleeing police were killed, injured or possibly injured when they crashed, state records show. Just 18% of chased car drivers were killed, injured or possibly injured in a crash.
Police departments routinely warn officers about hazardous road conditions and high-risk drivers. Some bar motorcycle cops from pursuits because of the danger if an officer crashes.
Yet nearly one-third of the police-chase deaths involved one of those three high-risk factors, USA TODAY found.
That includes 1,132 motorcyclists who were killed while being chased. More than half — 589 — were not wearing a helmet.
“Most police departments don’t allow their motorcycles to be in pursuits, so why would you chase one?” said Alpert, the South Carolina researcher. “Motorcycle drivers are either going to get away or they’re going to get killed.”
Michigan State Police must consider “road and weather conditions” in deciding whether to chase, and can pursue only people suspected of a “life-threatening felony” or drivers who pose “an immediate threat to the safety of the public.” The policy cautions, “It is better to either delay the arrest or abandon the pursuit than to needlessly injure or kill innocent people.”
The Michigan State Police have been involved in 44 deadly chases over the past decade, 120 motorcycle chases that resulted in a crash, and 212 chases on wet or icy roads that resulted in a crash, state records show.
Most chases are short, said state police Chief of Staff Capt. Greg Zarotney, and in those cases “road condition rarely has a bearing on the crash.” As for motorcycle chases, Zarotney said, “keep in mind that a pursuit only occurs when a decision is made by a driver to flee.”
Although police chases have been recognized as dangerous for nearly half a century, both training and technology remain inadequate, experts say.
The average police trainee received 72 hours of weapons training compared to 40 hours of driving training, only a portion of which covered chases, according to a 2006 Justice Department study of police training academies.
A 2007 survey of Florida Highway Patrol sergeants showed that 80% thought that patrol officers “did not have adequate training in the area of pursuit driving.” Highway Patrol spokesman Lieut. Ryan Martina did not respond to repeated inquires about how the patrol responded to the poll.
“We’re not taking it seriously enough because we think that one day of training that an officer may have gotten in their academy is going to take effect 10 years later when a pursuit begins,” said Maj. Travis Yates, the Tulsa expert on police chases. “Most officers will never fire their firearms ever, but we train one to four times a year” on using guns.
Chases have been left behind in the modernization of police equipment that is now moving toward outfitting officers with body cameras. President Obama in December proposed $75 million in federal funds to buy 50,000 body cameras in the effort to “build and sustain trust” between police and communities.
Police use of Tasers, body armor, cameras and computers in patrol cars has soared, Justice Department reports show. In 2007, 90% of police worked for a department that used portable computers. In 1990, that figure was 30%.
Yet the principal “technology” for chases are tire spikes — two decades old and seldom used because police must know where a fleeing car is heading so they can pull a strip of spikes across a road. Police in Minnesota used spikes in only 3% of the nearly 1,000 chases in the state in 2014, state records show.
A Justice Department overview notes that spikes “can put both the officers and other motorists in danger.” Houston police officer Richard Martin was killed May 18 when a fleeing driver swerved and hit him as he was laying spikes.
“There’s been a lot of advances in police technology in the last 15 years. The pursuit-termination devices we envisioned haven’t kept up with those advances,” said Farrow, the California Highway Patrol commissioner.
A federal effort to develop advanced systems has fallen well short of the hype of a 1996 Justice Department bulletin headline, “High-Speed Pursuit: New Technologies Around the Corner.” Federal justice and transportation officials began studying improvements to pursuit safety after a controversial 1968 study by Physicians for Automotive Safety said that 70% of police chases result in crashes.
Devices that would shut off the engines of moving cars by transmitting microwaves are not commercially available a decade after the Justice Department funded their development. “It’s very frustrating that we haven’t gotten to that next stage,” said Bill Miera, owner of Fiore Industries of New Mexico, which tried to build the devices with the help of a $300,000 federal grant but ran short of money.
A device that shoots a small, adhesive GPS tag onto a car exterior was introduced for police in 2010, but is used by only 20 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments. Attaching a GPS tag lets police stop their chase — which prompts fleeing drivers to slow down — and follow the car by computer until it stops, where they can make an arrest.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety has embedded the systems in seven cars and uses them every time an officer can get within 30 feet of a fleeing vehicle, Capt. Chris Hemmen said. After tagging a car, police shadow it from a couple of blocks away. “As soon as they stop, we’re able to pounce,” Hemmen said.
Houston Police considered the devices after Martin’s death but declined because officers still have to pursue a car and get close enough to fire the remote-controlled GPS tag from a launcher mounted behind the grill of a police car, department spokeswoman Jodi Silva said.
The $5,000 purchase cost also deters departments, which often spend capital funds and federal grants on routine items such as car tires and hiring more officers, said Trevor Fischbach, president of StarChase LLC, the manufacturer, which got a $380,000 federal grant.
“We’re in the 21st Century,” Fischbach said. “We should be using 21st-century tools that are available.”
Police departments that restrict chases have faced resistance from officers.
In 2012, the Florida Highway Patrol changed from a policy that allowed officers to chase anyone, to a policy that allowed pursuits only of suspected felons, drunk drivers and reckless drivers. The number of highway patrol pursuits fell almost in half: from 697 in 2010 – 2011, to 374 in 2013 – 2014.
But 35% of the pursuits in 2013 and 2014 violated the new chase restrictions, state reports show.
Dallas police used to ignore a policy that required them to stop chasing drivers who fled for traffic violations and appeared unlikely to stop, said Randall Blankenbaker, the assistant police chief. When the department in 2006 adopted an even stricter policy limiting chases to suspected violent felons, “there were some folks who were resistant,” said Blankenbaker, who wrote the policy.
Milwaukee police still oppose Chief Flynn’s 2010 policy restricting chases to suspected violent felons and people who present “a clear and imminent threat to the safety of others.”
“The crooks understand that this is our process,” said Michael Crivello, the police union president. “Criminals know their car is almost like their safe locker. They can keep drugs and guns in their safe locker.”
Motor-vehicle thefts in Milwaukee policy spiked to 18 a day in 2014, from 12 a day in 2013.
Flynn said car theft “became sport” among juveniles. “These kids were finding out, well, nothing happens to me. They had the prestige of being cool to their friends, the thrill of the danger and no consequences,” Flynn said, adding that 70% of cars stolen in the city are recovered.
Other cities have seen crime plunge since restricting chases. The Dallas crime rate has plummeted since 2006 — from 81 crimes per 1,000 residents to 48 crimes per 1,000 residents in 2013, according to FBI crime reports. City police have been involved in only one fatal chase since 2006, Blankenbaker said.
Phoenix and Orlando also have seen their crime rates fall substantially since adopting policies that allow pursuits only for suspected violent felons, FBI reports show.
Many departments base their chase policies on a three-page model the International Association of Chiefs of Police wrote in 1996. The model stops short of the Justice Department recommendation to list the offenses and conditions such as time of day in which a chase is allowed. The model instead lists factors to consider such as road and weather conditions, traffic levels, and the seriousness of a driver’s offense.
Flynn restricted chases after four bystanders were killed over three months in 2009 and 2010. Immediately after the deaths, Flynn defended his officers, noting they followed department policy and had actually stopped their pursuits only to have the fleeing drivers continue speeding away and hit the bystanders. Fleeing drivers typically continue speeding for a minute or two after police stop their chase, studies show.
“I thought to myself, it’s not enough that we have a policy that tells our officers to terminate pursuits when they become unsafe. That was the industry standard,” Flynn said. “I needed an extra line to stop the pursuit in the first place, not because the officers were driving recklessly, but because we can’t control the behavior for those who refuse to stop for police.”