In Montana, no more second guessing deputies’ decisions to cool off a hot pursuit

Decisions by sheriff’s deputies in Missoula County, Mont., to terminate pursuits of fleeing suspects will no longer be second-guessed by supervisors, who will still maintain the authority to end police chases under policy revisions recently ordered by Sheriff Douglas Chase.

The policy change, one of several announced recently, provides “the opportunity for officers to terminate pursuit without criticism, regardless of circumstances, if they feel the public interest is outweighed,” Chase told Law Enforcement News.

The change was made “realizing that the officer must make that decision out in the field, and that it’s real easy for me to Monday-morning quarterback it from an office,” Chase said. Supervisors will still have the authority to order an end to a pursuit and “there’s to be no argument” from deputies, he said.

“Does the end justify the means? That’s what has to be the bottom line in that officer’s mind. Having been a street officer for many, many years, I know that sometimes you need your supervisor to call the shots,” said Chase, who began in policing career in 1963 with the Missoula Police Department. He eventually served as that city’s police chief before being elected sheriff in 1991.

No serious incidents arising from pursuits precipitated the changes, according to Chase. After “months and months” without one, “we’ve had about three pursuits in the past 25 days,” the Sheriff said Sept. 30. In each case, the suspects were captured and no injuries were reported, he said.

“As Sheriff, I just thought it was time we revisited this,” he said. “It’s just an area that needed to be addressed…. We owe it not only to the public but to our officers. [Pursuits] just cause mass bedlam if they’re not controlled.”

Under other changes, all of the agency’s sworn personnel, from the Sheriff on down, are now required to take a yearly emergency-vehicle operation course, just as they are required to undergo annual firearms training. It also limits the number of cruisers involved in a pursuit incident, especially when the chase spills over into other jurisdictions.

“Out here, we’re spread over hell’s half-acre, and you can have a number of agencies involved, so you sure as heck have to limit the number of cars involved,” Chase said.

Firearms are not to be used during pursuits unless the lives of the officer or others in the area are endangered, Chase added. “Again, that falls back to officer’s discretion, realizing that generally that bullet’s going to miss or a tragedy will result. And is deadly force warranted? Once he discharges that firearm, you’re going to be defending it as an officer.”

Chase said the revisions were made with the safety of both the public and the officer in mind. “If you’re going to get into trouble in law enforcement it’s going to be in pursuit, use of a firearm or excessive force in making an arrest. We would hope we’re a progressive department and that these issues are addressed,” he said.


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Published in Law Enforcement News
Nov. 15, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.