The Case for High-Speed Police Car Chases

Gentle readers, in our previous visit we discussed a police chase in Baltimore, one that was, in my view, imprudently and prematurely called off by a police commander who was worried about the potential for a traffic collision. The suspect being pursued had committed two acts of attempted murder on police officers, the first by trying to run an officer over with a car, the second by shooting at another officer, yet this supervisor chose to allow the suspect to escape. Two days later, police shot and killed the suspect after, yes, another car chase.

A police officer and a civilian were wounded during the second chase, injuries that would not have occurred had the suspect been captured in the first one. I acknowledge it’s easy to make this claim in hindsight, and there’s no way to know how the first chase would have concluded. And yes, there was a danger that some innocent motorist or pedestrian might have been injured if the suspect had crashed, but there was a virtual certainty of a violent confrontation with the suspect later on once he was allowed to escape. As things happened, it was arguably less risky to chase him down a freeway at one in the morning than it was to chase him on city streets at eleven at night.

No one disputes that police chases are dangerous. I’ve been involved in several, and I’ve seen firsthand the devastation that can result when suspects are so desperate to escape that their judgment, often impaired to begin with, is abandoned. The questions a pursuing officer or his supervisor must ask in deciding whether to continue or terminate a pursuit are these: What are the risks presented by the suspect’s driving, and what are the risks attendant to his escape? Add to these another question which is seldom addressed by those who would curtail police chases: How safe is the citizenry when it becomes known among the criminal class that all one need do to avoid consequences for one’s predations is to drive so recklessly as to cause the police to give up the chase?

Last week saw a tragedy unfold in Ohio, where a man who stole a police cruiser in Riverside and drove at high speed through downtown Dayton before crashing into two cars, killing two children and injuring several others. The man, who investigators later learned had been involved in a stabbing, was not being pursued by police at the time of the crash. Which raises some questions: Would the man have driven even more recklessly if the police were chasing him? And, given the man had already stabbed someone, stolen a squad car, and rammed another, would the police have continued to pursue him despite the obvious risks? No one can say, obviously.

But what we can say is the law is clear, and it allows police officers to use deadly force to bring a dangerous chase to an end. In the case of Plumhoff v. Rickard (2013), a unanimous Supreme Court held that police officers do not violate the Constitution when they do so.

The case is discussed at some length in this video, but I’ll summarize it here. On July 18, 2004, Donald Rickard was stopped by an officer of the West Memphis, Ark., Police Department. When the officer, suspecting Rickard to be intoxicated, asked him to step out of the car, Rickard fled, leading several officers east on Interstate 40 and into Memphis, Tenn. It briefly appeared the chase was over when Rickard’s car stopped and was boxed in by police cars, but Rickard rammed a police car in an effort to continue fleeing. Officers opened fire, and both Rickard and his passenger were killed by some combination of the gunshots and the ensuing violent crash.

Justices Ginsburg and Breyer did not go so far as to endorse the number of shots fired by police (which was 15), but they nonetheless joined their seven colleagues in ruling in the officers’ favor. Citing the previous case of Scott v. Harris (2006), Justice Alito wrote, “We held that a ‘police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.’ We see no basis for reaching a different conclusion here.”

I do not suggest that police officers be at liberty to fire on any fleeing car under any circumstances. But it is often the case that fleeing drivers come to a temporary stop after collisions or spinning out, either through their own miscalculations or after having been deliberately spun in a PIT maneuver. In such cases, when a fleeing driver has already demonstrated a clear danger to innocent parties in his path and, rather than remaining stopped and submitting to arrest, chooses to continue driving, a police officer as the legal right – and I would argue the moral duty – to bring the chase to an end by means of deadly force if necessary.

Few would question a police shooting of a man firing a gun wildly on a busy street. A man driving recklessly on the same street poses just as great a danger, and should be dealt with the same way.