For many people, the only time they see a police chase is on television—either on a highlight reel on the news or on a police reality show or movie. If you actually see a live police chase on the road, you are likely to see the police chasing another vehicle, but you are not likely to see how the police chase ends. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for police chases to end in a fatality.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), there are more than 350 people killed in police chases every year. This is more than the number of people killed by police using their firearms. Approximately 3 police officers a year are killed in police chases. However, more than 100 of those killed in vehicle chases (about 1/3) are innocent bystanders who have nothing to do with the active police chase. There are even support groups for families of those killed in police chases.
What Typically Prompts a Police Chase?
A police chase often originates by a motorist violating a traffic law that a police officer witnesses and sets out to stop the motorist and issue a citation. One police captain who sits on the board of one of the family support groups said that this can make police officers angry, and when the driver refuses to pull over, the police officers may take it personally and resolve that they are going to catch the perpetrator no matter what. The Washington Post reported that 91% of police vehicle chases that result in a fatality are in response to non-violent crimes.
Do Police Departments Have Policies on Vehicle Chases?
Many police departments have implemented policies that prohibit or restrict vehicle chases. According to BJS, about 70% of local police departments have adopted some kind of policy that restricts the location or nature of police car chases. When officers abide by the policies, it significantly reduces the resulting fatalities. According to BJS, in police departments that allow police officers to exercise their own discretion about whether to pursue a suspect in a high speed chase, there are about 17 chases per year for every 100 officers. However, for agencies that “discourage or prohibit” police chases, only 2 out of 100 officers will be involved in a police chase in the course of a year.
Under policies that restrict the nature of police chases, a chase may be limited to:
- Situations in which the police chase is less of a threat to the public than the suspect being pursued
- Pursuit of persons suspected of committing felony crimes
- Certain roadways that pose less risk to the public
Despite the adoption of such policies, however, the number of fatalities resulting from police chases continues to increase. Many more people are injured or suffer property damage as a result of police vehicle chases.
Who Is Responsible for Police Chase Fatalities, Injuries, and Damage to Personal Property?
Generally, it is a good policy that police officers should chase criminals. It is also a good policy that police officers should not put the public at risk. But when it comes to balancing the benefit of chasing a suspected criminal against the risk of causing a fatality or injury, good policies are much more difficult to create and adopt.
If you or someone you love has been injured or killed as a result of a police chase, there are many different factors that may impact who will be held responsible for compensating you for your injuries.
- The criminal being chased. One approach is to hold responsible the criminal who is being chased by the police. It is axiomatic that any driver on the road owes a duty of care to other drivers. When a motorist who refuses to stop for a traffic violation, or when a criminal who flees the scene of a crime drives recklessly on the road with no concern for the safety of others, they could be liable for any damages they cause. However, it is sometimes the case that a criminal willing to commit a crime and flee from the police is also willing to drive their vehicle without proper insurance. Even if they have insurance, their policy may not cover liability for damages caused in the course of committing a crime.
- The police are chasing the criminal. Whether a police officer may be held liable for damages caused during a police chase may depend on whether there is a policy in place that defines the appropriateness of the chase.
- Where there is a policy in place that prohibits police chases, if a police officer disregards that policy and pursues a suspect in a police chase that results in a fatality, injury, or property damage, the police may be responsible for the resulting harm when an officer violates the imposed policy.
- Where there is no policy restricting a police officer’s discretion to engage in a police vehicle pursuit, the police department may be liable if the police officer acts negligently in pursuing the suspect, such as when the public is clearly put in danger and the benefit of pursuing the suspect is outweighed by the risk imposed on the public.
- If a municipality or local police department failed to properly train an officer to engage in hot pursuit, the local municipality that employs the officer or the department that failed to train them may be held accountable. This may be the rare case, however, whereas most police officers are highly trained.
- Your own insurance company. It may be the case that the best way to recover for your damages caused by a high-speed police chase is to file a claim with your own insurance company pursuant to your uninsured motorist coverage.
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