Police high speed pursuit crashes kill seven innocent bystanders weekly

Killing the innocent bystandersNothing is faster then a Motorola police radio when being pursued by police and yet high speed pursuit crashes occur on a daily basis often resulting in tragic fatalities, sometimes almost wiping out entire families.

The data on police high speed pursuits is alarming as one FBI report suggests; “one person dies every day as a result of a police pursuit.” In fact, FBI findings also point to the fact that, “1 percent of all U.S. law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty lost their lives in vehicle pursuits.”

During the year 2013 a total of 100 officers lost there lives in the line of duty, the lowest since 1959. Nevertheless, one death is one too many.

Innocent bystanders

Equally disturbing is the number of innocent bystanders killed during high speed police pursuits. Mandatory reporting on the actual number of casualties or fatalities, strangely enough, is not a U.S. reporting statistical requirement.

However, existing data suggests that suspects fleeing from police, kill 150 innocent bystanders annually in the US alone and some suggest this number is even higher.

Engaging a fleeing suspect vehicle comes as a great risk for everyone. With police pursuits there is a fine line between balancing suspect apprehension and protecting lives. The percentage of innocent bystanders killed or injured hovers around 42 percent nationally.

Why place public at risk

In reality, the use of a speeding patrol car (or, for that matter, any vehicle) should be considered the use of deadly force and no different from discharging an officers sidearm into a crowd of innocent people. Both can result in deadly consequences. It’s irresponsible and far from police best practices.

Fleeing suspects have no rules of the road and place everyone at further risk. Their primary objective is non-apprehension. Why then are vehicle pursuits even necessary given the modern day technology of license plate readers and the speed social media. Our opinion is you’ll get your man, or woman eventually.

Some studies suggest officers need to “win” or the “adrenaline rush” motivating factors in continuing the chase. A closer review indicates most pursuits are for minor vehicle violation and the methodology used to stop fleeing vehicles varies.

Most options include just the use of lights and sirens while others include the placement of tire spikes, roadblocks, helicopters, and social media such as amber alerts or just letting the suspect run out of gas.

Legal consequences and immunity from liability

“Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007), was a decision by the United States Supreme Court involving a lawsuit against a sheriff’s deputy brought by a motorist who was paralyzed after the officer ran his eluding vehicle off the road during a high-speed car chase.

The driver contended that this action was an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The case also involved the question of whether a police officer’s qualified immunity shielded him from suit under Section 1983.

On April 30, 2007, in an 8-1 decision, the court sided with police and ruled that a “police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.”

The consequences of this United States Supreme Court decision has a far more sinister impact for California citizens. California law provides for officer immunity on an unprecedented level when innocent bystanders in police pursuit chases are killed or maimed.

According to PursuitSAFETY.org website: “California has one specific area of law that is unique among the 50 states. California Vehicle Code Section 17004.7 provides immunity to law enforcement for injury to and death of innocent bystanders even when officers do not follow the vehicular pursuit policy their agency has actually adopted. There is no accountability to innocent victims and the families left behind.”

Choosing not to chase saves lives

Many policing agencies nationally have begun to change there policy on high speed pursuits as the direct result of one well know organization PursuitSafety.org who’s mission “is committed to reducing the number of deaths and injuries as a result of vehicular police pursuit and response call crashes.”

PursuitSafety.org operates primarily through national awareness programs and advocacy of police pursuit policy changes. They “exist to save lives”.

The Orlando, FL, Police Department, Dallas, TX, Police Department and the St. Louis, MO, County have all developed safety pursuit policy’s designed to pursue in some cases only the most dangerous of felons also taking into consideration road, traffic and weather conditions including and limiting the pursuit without further authorization up to 15 minutes. These policies were put in place to limit police pursuits and save lives.

PAPD pursuit policy kept under wraps

According to Lieutenant Zachary Perron, Public Affairs Manager, for the Palo Alto Police Department in an email classifies there pursuit policy as exempt from disclosure, “since it covers our specific [high speed pursuit] tactics.” and “in accordance with Government Code sections 6254(f), 6254(aa), and 6254(ab). ”

However recognizes, “Vehicle pursuits are one of the most dangerous activities that a police department can undertake, and they can have fatal consequences”.

We are very cognizant of that, and we have been for years. To my knowledge, there have never been any fatalities as a result of any vehicle pursuit by our personnel. Fortunately, vehicle pursuits are not common in Palo Alto. So far in 2014, we have had none. In all of 2013, we had one, and in all of 2012, we had only one as well. With that said, of course even one vehicle pursuit can end in tragedy, either for the suspects, officers, or innocent member of the public.” This excellent news!!!

Controversy on officer immunity questioned

“Due to that inherent danger, our vehicle pursuit policy provides officers with guidance in balancing the safety of the public and themselves against our duty to apprehend law violators. Quite frankly, and as evidenced by our exceptionally low number of vehicle pursuits, the immediate apprehension of a suspect is generally not more important than the safety of the public and the pursuing officers.

Also, with regards to the part in your article discussing immunity, I would also call your attention to section 21056 VC, which states that even when driving with red light and siren activated (as officers are required to have during a vehicle pursuit), officers must still drive with “due regard for the safety of all persons using the highway.”

We are NOT granted immunity if we are violating 21056 VC; rather, 17004.7 VC offers immunity if we are violating our policy (but it does not trump 20156 VC). This is an important distinction to make;……

We provide refresher training on our pursuit policy to all of our sworn personnel once every year. Any vehicle pursuit by our officers requires not only a supervisory report that is reviewed all the way up the chain of command to include the police chief, but also a report filed with the State of California via the California Highway Patrol.

Controversy Lingers

Our pursuit policy was expressly written and adopted pursuant to the provisions of 17004.7 VC, with additional input from the POST (Peace Officer Standards & Training) Vehicle Pursuit Guidelines. We have had a pursuit policy as long as I’ve been a police officer with PAPD (16 years now), and our current policy is updated twice a year by a firm of lawyers to ensure it is in compliance not only with current police best practices, but also with the most recent case law on the topic.”

Whether or not new legislation or clarification to change current laws (which appears designed to protect and limit police officer liability) is effective, remains to be seen. Protecting and preventing predicable outcomes of police high speed pursuits and balancing the rights of innocent bystanders should be the concern of all law enforcement personnel and legislators.

One Reply to “Police high speed pursuit crashes kill seven innocent bystanders weekly”

  1. I have not had any prior discussions with law enforcement or legislators regarding VC 21056.

    VC Section 17004.7 Public Agency Immunity deals with police pursuits and policy. Blanket immunity from liability exists if a law enforcement agency has adopted a written pursuit policy that meets the state’s minimum standards, even if officers do not follow their agency’s pursuit policy.

    In 2006, the state added an officer training requirement into the vehicle code. The issues of “due diligence” and “safe driving” regarding VC 21056 raise an interesting question. Who makes the call on these subjective terms? One could argue that the department’s officers, who did not follow their pursuit policy, were obviously driving with disregard for the safety of the public. This argument is not occurring because California’s pursuit immunity shield is firmly in place.

    California’s Fourth Appellate Court responded to this immunity shield law in a 2002 opinion about a police chase in Southern California. The judges stated in the matter of:


    It is especially chilling that this particular instance occurred on the property of a school where students were present, but it is also sad that one blameless person was seriously injured as a result of the pursuit, and that his family has no option for redress. We urge the Legislature to revisit this statute…. The adoption of a policy which may never be implemented is cold comfort to innocent bystanders…. We do not know if the policy was followed … and that is precisely the point: We will never know.

    Vehicle code 17004.7 trumped all other vehicle codes when a 2002 violent non-policy pursuit crash killed my daughter Kristie, an innocent bystander. I maintain the chase that killed Kristie was a non-policy pursuit because officers chased a known teen (policy violation). Officers knew she had taken her mother’s car without permission (policy violation: crime vs. the risk of the chase).

    They chased her through five traffic-controlled intersections (more policy violations). The police needed to catch her so badly that they sent the teen home with her mother and didn’t even arrest her until 21 days later. She received one year in juvenile hall and probation. Our family was traveling with Kristie, a passenger in our family van, to her high school basketball game.

    It is promising to hear comments about no fatalities from pursuits in Palo Alto. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Sacramento where a recent pursuit crash killed a father and his teenage daughter or in Southern California where this tragedy was repeated, killing a 12-year-old girl. Violent pursuit crashes kill innocent bystanders every week throughout the United States.

    Candy Priano
    Founder and Executive Director

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