PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — A California newspaper released an analysis of police pursuits — an almost hourly occurrence in the state and an important but dangerous part of police work.
After Cathedral City police officer Jermaine Gibson was killed in March while pursuing a speeding Mustang, The Desert Sun launched a six-month investigation to obtain chase and crash data and pursuit policies from local police agencies and the California Highway Patrol.
Pursuits are a “critical concern for law enforcement,” Larry Gaines, chairman of the criminal justice department at California State University, San Bernardino said. They pose safety risks to officers and civilians, so police administrators should constantly revisit their pursuit policies and how well they're enforced.
The policies of various departments in the Coachella Valley area can be viewed to the left, and in the video below, scenes from scripted and real-life police chases are featured in training excerpts produced by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The Desert Sun's report says the following should be considered during a pursuit:
What am I chasing him for?
Though choosing to pursue another driver is a split-second decision, officers are required to weigh the seriousness of the crime against the danger of a chase, according to California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow.
Some departments have policies in place that determine who they can pursue.
The Palm Desert Sheriff’s Department only pursues suspected drunken drivers and felons, Palm Desert station commander Capt. Dan Wilham said, marking a radical change from several years ago.
“When I started in the department 26 years ago, it didn't matter what the violation was,” Wilham said. “If we turned on our overheads and somebody hit the accelerator instead of the brake, we chased them.”
Assessing when to pursue
Officers must weigh road conditions, traffic and weather during pursuits.
They're communicating with dispatchers and dealing with motorists who are often driving recklessly, running red lights or stop signs, cutting off other vehicles — leading some groups to say that police should chase more conservatively.
“My suggestion is always ‘Don't pursue unless it's a violent crime,'” said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor who serves on an advisory board for the Chico-based group Voices Insisting on Pursuit Safety.
Cathedral City Police Chief Kevin Conner disagrees.
A pursuit that starts with a minor infraction often uncovers the car’s involvement in a more serious crime, he said, and restrictions might prevent these discoveries — as well as take away an officer’s discretion.
Ending the chase
Both statewide and locally, about a quarter of drivers pull over after the chase starts, and almost one in five ends in a crash.
Nearly all of the 68 officers who have been killed in California history because of vehicle pursuits were under 40, according to an analysis of data from the Officer Down Memorial Page.
It lists chases as the No. 5 leading cause of death for officers in the state.
Officers can end pursuits at any moment. Across California, officers call off chases about 11 percent of the time.