POLICE CHASES and INNOCENT VICTIMS

More than 11,500 people have been killed in police chases since 1979. According to USA Today analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation records, the breakdown of the 11,500 people are 6,301 fleeing drivers, non-violators 5066 and police 139. Thomas Frank published an article in USA Today – The Journal News on July 31, 2015 entitled “High speed police chases have killed thousands”. More than 5,000 bystanders and passengers have been killed in police car chases since 1979 and tens of thousands more were injured as police officers repeatedly pursued drivers at high speeds and in hazardous condition and often for minor infractions. Bystanders and passengers in chased cars account for nearly half of all people killed in police pursuits from 1979 through 2013. According to USA most bystanders were killed in their own car by fleeing drivers.

Police across this country chase tens of thousands of people each year, unfortunately, usually for traffic violations or misdemeanors. Recent cases show the danger of the long standing police practice of chasing minor offenders. A 25 year old New Jersey man was killed July 18, 2015 by a driver police chased four miles for shoplifting. A 60 year old federal worker was killed March 19, 2015 near Washington by a driver police chased because his headlights were off. The deceased 83 year old mother said “the police shouldn’t have been chasing him. That was a big crowded street. He wouldn’t have hit my son if the police hadn’t been chasing him”.

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. The Justice Department called pursuits “the most dangerous of ordinary police activities”. Way back in 1990, the Justice Department urged police departments to adopt policies listing exactly when officers can and cannot pursue someone. Despite the Justice Department’s warnings, the number of chase related death in 2013 was higher than the number in 1990; 322 compared with 317 according to the records of the Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) which analyzes all fatal motor vehicle crashes. Many police department let officers make on the spot judgment about whether to chase based on perception of a driver’s danger to the public. Officers continue to violate pursuit policies concerning when to avoid or stop a chase.

All cities should have a policy similar to Milwaukee and Orlando which only allow chases of suspected violent felons. In reality, many police departments let officers chase anyone if they decide to risk of letting someone go outweighs the risk of pursuit. At least 11,506 people including 6300 fleeing suspects were killed in police chases from 1979 through 2013, the last year statistics were available from NHTSA. Kansas, Michigan & Minnesota state records all show more chase related deaths than NHTSA shows for those states.

Analyzing each fatal crash, USA Today found that at least 2456 bystanders were killed and the death toll could be as high as 2750 bystanders. Records from 6 states show that 17,600 people were hurt in police chases from 2004 – 2014. An average of 1760 injuries a year in those states which make up 24% of the U.S. population. Those numbers show that chases nationwide may have injured 7400 people a year, more than 270,000 people since 1979.

In California, records of 63,500 chases from 2012 – 2014 show 89% of chases were for vehicle code violations including speeding and reckless driving and 4,898 instances of a missing license plate or an expired registration. Only 5% were an attempt to chase a suspected violent crime (assault or robbery) and 168 sought a known murder suspect. Nearly 1000 chases were for safety violation that endangered a driver only included 850 drivers not wearing seatbelts and 23 motorcycle riders not wearing a helmet. Believe it or not, 90 chases were for driving too slowly. It is ludicrous that police endanger the innocent bystander and themselves for safety violations that only effect the driver.

The article points out that chases are inherently dangerous because of speed and police often compound the danger by chasing drivers in hazardous conditions At least 3440 people were killed in crashes when a driver was fleeing at 25 mph or more over the speed limit per the NHTSA. Most dangerous are chases on slippery roads and pursuits of inexperienced risk prone teenage drivers and of motorcycles who have little crash protection.

The legal standard that is violated when a pursuit occurs is that the police officers act as a “reasonable police officer in a similar situation”. It is a balancing act between the degree of a violation and the danger to the driver and most importantly, the innocent victim. Chasing a driver who has a rear car light out versus killing an innocent bystander is the standard of a “reasonable” officer would or should have done in the similar circumstances. In considering what a reasonable officer would of or should have done, you look to police department rules and regulations on chasing individuals. If the chase is a violation of the police officer department’s rules and regulation (chasing a minor violation vs. endangering or killing an innocent bystander), a lawsuit lies.

In proving such cases, our firm uses police experts who are familiar with rules and regulations to prove the chase was not warranted, especially when the chases jeopardizes innocent victims for a very minor violation.

If you or someone you know has been injured as a result of a police chase, call the law firm of Dominick J. Robustelli & Associates, PLLC at (914) 288-0800 or e-mail us at djrobolaw@aol.com.