Deadly Police Pursuit

Glamorized in action movies, high-speed chases in real life may threaten the public more than the crime for which a fleeing suspect is being chased.  The recent death of a 72 year old Lynnwood man who was struck by a fleeing driver brings the debate about the risks of police pursuit to the forefront.  In this instance, the fleeing driver was wanted on warrants for misdemeanor drug possession and theft.  Just two weeks earlier, also in Snohomish County, police pursued a driver of a stolen pickup, which ultimately crashed into and killed a 42 year old nurse and mother.

See: Seattle Times

Sobering Statistics

Roughly one third of fatalities arising from high-speed police chases are innocent bystanders.

See: USA Today

Less than one year ago, police pursuit was highlighted in an ABC World News report that dubbed California the “police chase capital of the world”: More bystanders are injured or killed during high-speed police chases than by stray bullets. In California, more than 10,000 people have been injured and over 300 people killed because of police chases in the last decade……….

See: ABC News

An article in the 2010 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin offers these chilling statistics.  According to police pursuit records:

  • The majority of police pursuits involve a stop for a traffic violation.
  • One person dies every day as a result of a police pursuit.
  • Innocent third parties who just happened to be in the way constitute 42 percent of persons killed or injured in police pursuits.
  • 1 out of every 100 high-speed pursuits results in a fatality.


Trend is toward “No Pursuit” Policies

Seattle, like many major cities, has gradually moved toward a highly restricted pursuit policy.  The Seattle Police Manual includes the following No Pursuit Rules:

Absent exigent circumstances, officers will not pursue solely for any one of the following:

  • The act of eluding alone
  • Traffic violations
  • Misdemeanors
  • Gross misdemeanors
  • Most property crimes


Still, many cities leave the decision to pursue squarely within the police officer’s discretion.   Such is the Lynnwood pursuit policy, which no doubt will face close scrutiny on the heels of the recent fatalities.  While the Lynnwood police pursuit policy offers guidelines for when to pursue or terminate pursuit, it does not detail situations in which pursuit is not allowed. See: Seattle Times

Complicating the on-the-spot decision-making process are an officer’s physical responses to a fleeing suspect:

The need to “win” and make that arrest can be influenced by the adrenaline rush felt by the officer who also must recognize that the fleeing suspect will have the same experience. Because research has demonstrated the impact of this on an officer’s vision, hearing, motor skills, and decision making, it would appear necessary to prepare for the same adverse affect it could have on fleeing suspects. Clearly, a pursuit is an exciting event and involves one person running to escape and another chasing to catch.


City and Police may Share Responsibility for Wrongful Death

There are certainly circumstances, involving dangerous criminals, which warrant high-speed pursuits.  But there are others in which high-speed pursuits are too dangerous in light of the risk to public safety.  Although the fleeing suspect who crashes into an innocent bystander is directly responsible for the harm caused, a police officer who has used poor judgment or failed to follow policy in pursuing the suspect may also be responsible for creating dangerous circumstances that result in injuries or fatalities.  A City that has failed to modify its pursuit policies in light of data about the dangerousness of pursuits may also be responsible.  James Dixon and Jennifer Cannon-Unione are experienced wrongful death and catastrophic injury attorneys who are also experienced in bringing cases against government entities where warranted.  If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of police or government wrongdoing, please do not hesitate to contact Dixon & Cannon, Ltd. at (206) 957-2247.