1/3 of Deaths in Police Pursuits Nationwide Are Bystanders

One third of all high-speed police pursuits nationwide resulted in the death of an innocent bystander, according to a Harborview analysis of nine years of national statistics released Wednesday.

But several law enforcement agencies in King County, like the Sheriff's Office, say the option to pursue offenders must not be taken away from individual officers.

"We are going to weigh the balance between the need to apprehend a suspect and the risk to the public," Sheriff spokesman John Urquhart Urquhart said, noting that the study also makes that point.

He said the high speed pursuit a week ago today by several law enforcement agencies of a Renton man wanted for kidnapping a Mercer Island girl was a classic example. "You don't stop, you gotta catch the guy" he said.

Officers didn't know the girl was in the car but they had to catch the man because he was the only one who knew where the girl was located, he said. The chase ended in a crash but no one was hurt.

The study results released Wednesday by the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle pointed out that the number of deaths nationwide each year far exceeds that due to any other police activity. Nearly 300 people are killed annually in police pursuits, the study found.

Given that fact, the study authors conclude that "the costs benefits of police pursuits should be more openly discussed and other options for stopping criminals more fully explored." They point out that other studies indicate that pursuit policies, training and review vary widely nationally.

The study doesn't break out statistics by state nor did it examine the number of local police pursuits, but there have been deaths, including of innocent people.

Law enforcement agencies in King County have honed their pursuit policies over the past decade. Some agencies are more restrictive than others, even forbidding pursuits of stolen cars or in cases of minor traffic offenses. Most Eastside police departments fall into that category, according to a Journal survey two years ago.

South King County agencies -- Auburn, Kent, Renton -- give officers on the street considerable more discretion, but require supervisors to maintain strict control over the pursuit, according to the survey. Many agencies allow ramming and roadblocks to stop a fleeing car as a last resort to prevent injury to the public. Other don't. Renton prohibits ramming and roadblocks but does allow use of spike strip with a supervisor's permission.

Urquhart said 300 deaths a year is "bad, no question about that. We need to reduce that number."

He said the study's conclusion that police agencies need to explore the issue more is already being done.

"We don't disagreed. We have done that," he said Wednesday, noting that the department has developed a 17-page policy on police pursuits to guide deputies and their supervisors. Both are held accountable for their pursuits. There is also training in pursuit driving and how to prevent a police stop from escalating into a high speed pursuit. Every pursuit undergoes a review board.

The bottom line, he said, is deputies are allowed to chase criminals, even those who commit a traffic infraction, but the extent of the chase will depend on the individual circumstances.

Penny Bartley, a spokeswoman with the Renton Police Department, said there is never a single decision to chose a fleeing car. "There are constant decisions," she said, based on the time of day, the road conditions, other traffic, the type of crime involved.

A pursuit on a freeway at 70 mph at 3 a.m. may not be dangerous, she said, but the same pursuit during morning rush hour could be.

In 2002 in Renton, Bartley said there were 23 pursuits; half of them were terminated and no injuries resulted.

Washington State Patrol troopers ran into a high speed situation Monday when they attempted to stop a motorcycle in North Bend on Interstate 90 going speeds of nearly 130 mph. They backed off. A State Patrol plane monitored the fleeing man's progress to his house in Federal Way where he was arrested.

The Harborview study is published in this month's edition of Injury Prevention. The principal investigator for the study was Dr. Frederick Rivara, a University of Washington professor of pediatrics and adjunct professor of epidemiology. The study was also conducted by Chris Mack of the Harborview center.

The analysis is of data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the Crashworthiness Data System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the years 1994-2002.

During that period, Rivara discovered there were between 260 and 325 police pursuits annually that ended in deaths. Of those who died, 1,088 were not in the fleeing vehicles and 2,055 were in the fleeing vehicles. Altogether, 946 (30.1 percent) were in vehicles not involved in the pursuits. The researchers found that 102 pedestrian and bicyclists were killed and 40 police officers died.

Rivara said most of the crashes occurred at night, at high speeds and often on local roads.

"We have to ask ourselves whether there may be safe and effective alternatives to high speed police pursuits of suspected criminals," Rivara said, adding that public debate is needed.

While noting that certain police agencies already limit high speed police chases, the investigators suggest further research on the trade off between fewer pursuit-related pursuits and the potential for a high number of fatal crimes by those who might be pursued.

While not downplaying the number of deaths, Urquhart noted that the study does not indicate how many high speed chases were conducted by police during the nine year study. Only fatal high speed chases were examined, which could tend to skew the statistic, he said.

The other question, he said, is the definition of what is considered a high speed pursuit. That can vary from department to department.

Bartley also noted that the researchers approached the problem not as police officers but as someone interested in prevention.

"From a prevention standpoint it is a very easy cause and effect," she said.

The issue is much more difficult for police who have been sued for pursuing and also for not pursuing, she added.

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