Prompted by the tragic deaths and injuries suffered by police and innocent bystanders caught in the middle of high-speed pursuits, law enforcement agencies in the past year turned to technology, increased research into the problem, and overhauled guidelines to try and work out a solution.
Agencies in Oregon, Washington, Oklahoma, the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, and Indiana all were involved in high-speed chase incidents that resulted in deaths, serious injury or the potential for serious injury.
¶ A 12-year-old boy in Oregon survived several rollovers and a head-on crash after leading police on a high-speed chase on June 9. The pursuit reached speeds of 105 miles per hour.
¶ A family driving through New Lisbon, Ind., had their van’s windows shot out after two state troopers fired at a bank robber trying to escape in the vehicle. Danette Gunn and her family were sprayed with glass.
¶ Five Philadelphia teen-agers were killed in September when the stolen Jeep they were driving went out of control at a high-rate of speed and struck a utility pole. The driver of the vehicle had pulled over when directed by officers, but had taken off again when police noticed the Jeep’s ignition had been “punched out.”
¶ Drewey and Mona Scarberry were awarded $950,000 by the City of Tacoma because of a 1992 car crash that left Drewey Scarberry partially paralyzed. The couple’s car was broadsided by a carload of gang members being pursued by police.
A second look at the guidelines concerning high-speed chases in Missoula County, Mont., led to policy revisions by Sheriff Douglas Chase in November. Sheriff’s deputies will now be able to terminate pursuits without “criticism, regardless of circumstances, if they feel the public interest is outweighed,” he said. Supervisors will still have the authority to end a chase and “there’s to be no argument from deputies.”
In contrast, the Los Angeles Police Department’s policy will remain unchanged, following a review by the city’s Police Commission. Despite the fact that veteran officers are not trained for potentially dangerous pursuits, said officials, the chase guidelines are fundamentally sound.
That review came in response to a controversial study by the American Civil Liberties Union that found the LAPD has engaged in more pursuits in recent years at a time when agencies across the country are trying to hold down the number of car chases.
Another study of pursuit policies has recommended that suspects be apprehended by officers other than those who led the chase. Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, found that officers chasing suspects experience an adrenaline high that can lead to the use of excessive force once they’ve caught up with the fleeing suspects.
A case in point was provided by an April 1 incident in which Riverside County, Calif., deputies were videotaped beating two unresisting Mexicans with nightsticks. The suspects had been chased by the deputies, along with at least 19 other suspected illegal aliens riding in a battered pickup truck.
Suspecting that the truck was trying to avoid a border checkpoint in Temecula, Border Patrol officers initially gave chase, but stopped once it was clear that continuing could endanger themselves and others.
One of the two deputies was fired and the other was suspended for 20 days following an investigation by the Sheriff’s Department.
But chases may become a thing of the past, if Cold War technology being modified for civilian uses can be made accessible and affordable to local police agencies. The “car-stopper” device could halt a speeding car by disabling its electrical system and forcing it to slow to a controlled stop.
The Army and the National Institute of Justice are field-testing the technology in Southern California.
If, on the other hand, low-tech measures are more one’s style, there is the latest development from Finland, which was unveiled in August a harpoon-equipped patrol car, designed by a police sergeant who said he and his colleagues were “fed up” at their inability to stop speeders and drunk drivers.
The harpoon, which is not fired, is mounted on the front bumper of a police car, and pursuing officers ram it into the trunk of a fleeing vehicle, where the device locks into place with hydraulic barbs. The runaway car is forced to a halt as the patrol car hits the brakes.
“This harpoon will bring them to an abrupt halt with a bang and not a whimper,” said Oulu Sgt. Markku Limingoja.