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Police chases do more harm than good

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 09, 2012 6:30 AM

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At the end of last month, an Iowa State Patrol officer attempted to make a routine traffic stop at 12:04 a.m. Sadly, the driver the patrol officer attempted to stop failed to halt. As consequence, the officer engaged the driver in high speed pursuit. The pursuit ended when the driver of the speeding car lost control and careened into a ditch. The driver of that car, 18-year-old Tiea Griffith, and the passenger, 20 year old Samantha Brewer, ended up in St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids that night.

This story is sad — sadder, however, is that it is only one of many unnecessary accidents.

Obviously, the police should have considerable means at their disposal necessary to thwart crime. And, police should be provided flexible boundaries in cases that require them to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the public safe.

But when the good motives of police drive them to take actions that pose a demonstrable risk to the public, as in the instances of high-speed chases, it is necessary to erect more rigid restrictions on police activity.

We as a society should acknowledge that engaging in a high-speed car chase is equivalent to employing deadly force.

According to data from the National Highway Safety Administration, an average of 360 people are killed every year in high-speed car chases initiated by police. That is 360 fewer people who are alive today because of a choice that a police officer made to pursue a criminal who usually did nothing more than run a red light. And of that 360, a near full third of those people were bystanders.That number however, likely falls short of the true number because there is no mandatory reporting. In fact, according to University of South Carolina criminology Professor Geoffery Alpert, the actual number is likely as much as "three or four times higher."

That means if current trends continue, we can expect at least 100 innocent people to die every year so long as police continue to engage in high-speed chases.

To be sure, we want our police to relentlessly hunt down dangerous criminals with the utmost tenacity. But to doggedly pursue people who have committed simple traffic violations when they know full well that their activity puts every individual in their wake at risk? That is nothing but reckless.

Many other localities, cities, and even states have already come to grips with this reality and have placed tighter restrictions on police. After four individuals died in three separate instances in Milwaukee, the local police introduced a new requirement forcing police officers to have probable cause that the person they are pursuing has been involved in a violent felony before pursuing them.

This is a more than reasonable standard for an action that risks killing either the officer, the perpetrator, or an innocent bystander.

Iowa legislators should embrace a similar principle.

For decades, the employment of deadly force by police officers has been constrained because of the very real risks associated with taking such action. Considering available data, there is no reason police initiated high-speed car chases should be viewed or treated any differently.

The employment of deadly force by police should be restricted to only those cases in which the individual in question poses either an immediate or foreseeable threat to those around them. No people in their right mind would think it reasonable for a police officer to shoot at a speeding car in an attempt to bring that car to a halt. By that measure, there is no good reason to conclude that it is reasonable for police to engage in an activity that poses a 40 percent chance of ending in a crash and results in at least 360 deaths a year.

In the same way that the police are responsible for keeping the rest of us safe from dangerous individuals, law-enforcement institutions and publicly elected bodies are responsible for protecting the public from dangerous police activity. High speed car chases put officers at risk, the individuals they are chasing at risk, and the public at large at risk, and the rules the police abide by should reflect that fact.


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