Police operate in a very public forum. Anything a police officer does in their official capacity is open to public review, debate, and criticism. This is even more true when an incident involving the police results in the death or serious injury of a person. Such as when a shootout between offenders and police leaves people dead on either side. Or when an arrest ends with a broken arm for the defendant. Or when a police pursuit ends with the death of the person fleeing the police, or worse, ends with harm to innocent bystanders.
Police pursuits always catch the attention of the public. They are exciting to watch, as a fleeing motorist dodges this way, then that way, then tries some other crazy and reckless maneuvers to evade the pursuing police units. What people watching a pursuit from the safety and comfort of their living room couch need to remember, however, is that a police pursuit is a very dangerous event. Dangerous for the police, dangerous for any people who have the misfortune of being nearby, and yes even dangerous for the fleeing motorist. The police officer who pursues a motorist knows about these dangers. They are trained to recognize these dangers, and it is their responsibility to keep everyone safe, including the motorist committing multiple vehicle and traffic infractions in a bid to get away. It is the police officer who is responsible for initiating the pursuit, and it is the police officer who will be responsible for ending the pursuit. Either by getting the motorist to stop, or by choosing to stop the pursuit of the motorist.
But whose responsibility is it when a police pursuit injures someone? Kills someone?
Considering all the factors already laid out here, it would be easy to conclude the police are always responsible when a pursuit causes injury or death. But is that the case? The other side to this question is this: what responsibility does the fleeing motorist have? And the answer to this question is that the fleeing motorist has a great deal of responsibility and should not be held blameless when something happens.
In America, as in most every country in the world, we use the roads and highways as a privilege. Part of that privilege is the responsibility to drive in a manner that does not endanger anyone else. That’s why there are so many traffic laws. Stop at the stop sign, signal for your turns, don’t speed, wear your seatbelt, wear your motorcycle helmet, keep at least one hand on the wheel, don’t text message while driving. And, stop when the police signal you to stop.
That’s right, motorists have a responsibility to stop when the police signal for them to do so. Anyone who is given a driver’s license knows this rule. And anyone who does not stop when they are supposed to, is choosing not to stop. No one is making them continue (barring incidents of carjacking, of course). No one is forcing them to speed away and take risky chances to avoid being stopped. And that police officer behind them is not making them run. They are choosing to do so all by themselves.
It’s the police officer’s job to stop people who pose a threat to society. A reckless driver certainly qualifies. Now it is also true that there is probably some underlying reason why the fleeing motorist doesn’t want to stop. It’s possible they have drugs in the car. It’s possible they’re drunk. It’s possible they just robbed a bank and have five bags full of stolen money in the backseat. But it’s just as possible that they were simply speeding, and don’t want a ticket. People will do stupid things to keep from getting into trouble. And running from the police, endangering everyone around you so that you aren’t in trouble, is among the stupidest things a motorist can do. It’s the job of the police to keep us safe from people like that.
All the fleeing motorist has to do is stop. That’s it. Once that happens, the danger to everyone is over. By choosing to continue fleeing the police, in a motor vehicle that weighs hundreds of pounds, sometimes at excessive speeds, almost always in a reckless manner, the motorist is choosing to put the people around them in danger. Choosing to do so. The police officer is going to hang back and follow in as safe a manner as possible. It’s not the police that are endangering people in this situation, it’s the fleeing motorist with no regard for anyone but themselves.
I won’t pretend there aren’t exceptions to this. Of course there are. And every police officer knows them and is trained to abide by them. If the pursuit is going to go through a populated area, a congested area, or an area like a school zone, it’s time to back off the pursuit (except in extreme cases, like when the fleeing motorist is a murderer still firing a gun out their window).
For pursuits that were started for minor, or even not-so-minor violations of the traffic laws, endangering people by speeding through a populated area is not worth the justice that will be served by catching the motorist. It’s a benefits/loss analysis that police officers must make in a split-second’s time. And often, when the fleeing motorist’s actions are so reckless that they are in danger of killing themselves, the police will back off the pursuit also. The police have to care even about the life of the fleeing motorist.
There are other factors that weigh into a decision by a police officer to terminate a pursuit. If the officer knows who the motorist is, they might stop the pursuit and simply find the person later. If the police officer was lucky enough to get the vehicle’s plate number, they may terminate the pursuit and again, find the person later. If the pursuit is happening in a major city area where helicopter assistance is available, the ground units might terminate the pursuit and allow the helicopter to follow the vehicle until a successful roadblock can be set up down the road, or the fleeing motorist stops on their own. If the officer knows the fleeing motorist has other people with them in their vehicle or on their motorcycle who are being endangered by the pursuit, the officer may elect to terminate the pursuit in favor of not risking the passengers’ lives. And the officer has to consider all of this while traveling at high speeds and keeping a fleeing motorist in sight.
All the fleeing motorists have to think about is running. And saving their own skin. It’s their reckless actions that will end up getting themselves or someone else hurt or killed.
Of course, there’s nothing to say that even if the pursuing police units do terminate a pursuit that the fleeing motorist will then stop. Often, they continue to speed away, attempting to get even more distance between themselves and the police. What then? In circumstances like that, it’s easy to see it isn’t the police who are creating the danger in a pursuit. It’s the motorist who thinks they are above the law, and that no one’s life or safety is as important as their own.