High Speed Pursuits: In the Law


When we hear the term “high speed” car chase, what usually comes to mind is the scenes we see on television, either on shows or in the news. Criminals usually engage law enforcement elements in these situations to elude arrest by police from speeding or traffic violations, to more serious offenses that they have committed. Just when is it necessary to conduct this act and when should the police just back off?

When should the police chase the criminal?

            In the world of law enforcement, the police can attempt to pursue criminals by the mode of a high speed car chase. It must be understood, however, that an instance of high speed pursuit is mounted on the premise of the protection of the citizenry in the city or locale (Social Trends in America, 2008). In essence, the primary consideration in the possibility of conducting a high speed criminal pursuit should be that the public safety must come in first before weighing the benefits of arresting the suspect. Law enforcement authorities should also consider the threat of accidents and death to the police themselves before engaging in a high speed pursuit (Social, 2008).

            The possibility of engaging in a speed pursuit and the attached risks of acquiring injury or even risking death are a primary concern for law enforcement authorities (John Hill, 2002). Data available display the lethal nature of police pursuits (Hill, 2002). Research has born out the fact that the number of instances with regard to the conduct of high speed pursuits is on the rise, as well as the climbing numbers of accidents and deaths related to the conduct of such pursuits (Hill, 2002). But what is exactly meant by a high speed pursuit?

            By definition, a high speed motor vehicle pursuit is one when a law enforcement officer, with the sirens wailing and blinker lights are on, attempts to apprehend the occupant/s of a fleeing motor vehicle (Waterloo Police Department, 2004). However, there are attendant conditions to the conduct of a high speed motor vehicle pursuit (Waterloo, 2004). One, the fleeing vehicle is increasing speed and disregards the sirens and is not inclined to stop (Waterloo, 2004). Two, the driver of the fleeing car is doing so in an attempt to evade the police chasing them (Waterloo, 2004).

            Police in chase incidents are exposed to the dangers attached with the conduct of high speed pursuits (Hill, 2002). While it is noteworthy that some of the instances of high speed pursuits end without incident, many instances result in grievous injury or even in casualties, either on the criminal being chased, to the police or to the general public (William Sanderson). The statistics related to pursuit cases are at the very least quite disturbing. Law enforcement agencies have been found to be involved in about 350 fatalities a year in the conduct of high speed pursuits (Hill, 2002).

            One group keeping watch over the statistics related to the incidents of fatalities involved in the conduct of high speed pursuits put the number of casualties at 2,500 and 55,000 injuries (Hill, 2002). Of the number of casualties reported, it has been reported that a quarter of these casualties are bystanders (Social, 2008). In 1998, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that around 314 individuals lost their lives in the conduct of police pursuits (Hill, 2002). The casualties include two law enforcement officers and 198 people killed as the objects of the pursuit (Hill, 2002).

            Is the conduct of a high speed vehicle pursuit justified? It is so when it is the belief that the apprehension of the suspects being pursued is within the parameters of justification for the conduct of such (Waterloo, 2004). Again, it must be stated that the police have to make a quick and educated decision within a matter of seconds (Social, 2008). As stated earlier, the conduct of these pursuit operations have taken a large toll on the numbers of the police and the fleeing criminals (Hill, 2002). The remainder of the toll from the operations were culled from the occupants of vehicles not actively involved in the chase or from innocent bystanders (Hill, 2002).

            But the statistics from the conduct of the pursuit operations may be inaccurate (Hill, 2002). It is the notion that one-half of the data produced or gathered may just be the ones actually tallied (Hill, 2002). This fact is made apparent as the NHSTA actually lacks the compulsory reporting mechanisms to accurately gauge the correct number of fatalities in these incidents (Hill, 2002). In fact, the incidence of high speed chases have not been the subject of serious research efforts in recent times, and most law enforcement agencies have only been conducting research on the subject (Social, 2008).

            The basic thrust and trust that law enforcement and society has forged is that society has bestowed upon law enforcement the responsibility of protecting and safeguarding its peace (Karen Moore, 2008). The use of high speed pursuits has been given the notion that this is a instrument that police must use in apprehending criminals, and for a period of time has been given a loose parameter in how it is applied (Moore, 2008). But the current research into the activity that high speed pursuits, in the current ambit, have a tendency to morph into a very lethal situation (Hill, 2002). As earlier states, the actual numbers of car chase figures are not accurate (Social, 2008).

            The actual data numbers currently being reported to the NHSTA would roughly come around 90 percent of all cases (Hill, 2002). But by going over all the data to expect 100 percent reporting, actual numbers of deaths would be closer to 375 deaths (Hill, 2002). Some research initiatives would even post higher figures, posting ti at around 400 to 500 deaths per year (Hill, 2002). The figures gathered from the police departments themselves put a clearer and more graphic picture on the situation.

            The first statistics would indicate that most of the pursuit cases are those that involve traffic violations (Hill, 2002). In fact, this factor has been the main trigger in over half of the cases in the conduct of high speed motor vehicle pursuits (Social, 2008). The STOP organization, or Solutions to Tragedies of Police Pursuits, places the number of pursuit operations conducted yearly to be at 250,000 (Social, 2008). According to research, the average profile of the criminal involved with pursuit operations with the police is a young adolescent (Social, 2008). In most car pursuits, it is believed that 1 percent of the incidents result in fatalities while a significant number result in some form of damage to property (Social, 2008).

            On the average, one person is though to be a casualty in the event of a car chase (Hill, 2002).  The general public, however, that though they are sympathetic with the law enforcement establishment in the use of this method, believe that their safety must not be compromised (Hill, 2002). But the support for the chase method in apprehending criminals goes down as the crime that led to the chase also goes down (Hill, 2002). Most people feel that the police tend to “over kill” the situation when in pursuit of criminals (Hill, 2002).

            But the question, would the criminals have stopped in the first place? The answer would seem to be in the affirmative, as a research study has indicated (Social, 2008). In the study, 146 apprehended felons involved in car chases were used as samples for the study (Social, 2008). Of the number, seventy percent of the respondents argued that they would have stopped if the police decreased speed or had just stopped altogether chasing them (Social, 2008). Sixty-two percent of the respondents indicated that they were thinking of the safety of others (Social, 2008). But in the same survey, number of respondents saying that they wouldn’t have stopped at all hit fifty three percent (Social, 2008).

            Does this number indicate that the police have no choice but to engage in the conduct of high speed chases if the situation warrants it? And if so, how far can the police engage in them? What are the parameters does law enforcement have to set or observe when they conduct police chases? Is there any alternative to this method?

            Oppositors to high speed vehicle chases do agree that the police may still engage in the practice, but only in very limited occasions (Mundy, 2006). They believe that the police can still have the capacity to arrest the suspects in flight by the use of technology and by utilizing other modes of tracking and apprehension (Mundy, 2006). Also, other means and inventions have given law enforcement to basically stop fleeing criminals (Science Daily, 2008).

            Recently, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case of whether the police overreacted in the apprehension of fleeing criminals (Jennifer Dlouhy, 2007). The Court is deliberating on the case of a Georgia police officer used sound judgement when he used his car as a battering ram to halt the vehicle of a 19 year-old suspect, rendering the victim paralyzed (Dlouhy, 2007). The case and the expected ruling has been that has been actively observed by the law enforcement community, since this will a large impact on the conduct of pursuit operations within the different localities in the nation (Dlouhy, 2007). The concern by law enforcement would also have an impact in the decision to conduct police pursuit operations within the time frame of a few seconds (Dlouhy, 2007).

            In another case, the Supreme Court decided in the case of the police in conducting police pursuit operations (Social, 2008). In the case, a teenager was unintentionally run down and eventually killed by a police car after speeds of the chase reached 100 miles per hour (Social, 2008). In the ruling, the Supreme Court rules that the police would only be liable if the action would have created considerable shock to the conscience of society (Social, 2008). This would mean that the police would be criminally liable if the officer would have intended the killing of the suspect (Social, 2008).

            Some people believe that there is no distinction in what the police describe as the “incidental victims of police car chases (Mundy, 2006). In the research of the NHSTA, 30 percent of the victims were basically “non-involved” parties- people who just happened to be there at the scene of the chase or in the path of the suspect and the pursuing police (Mundy, 2006). The Court’s rulings may set the parameters on the conduct of police operations (Dlouhy, 2007). But if the court rules in the negative for the Georgia case, some fear that that would give law enforcement with unrestrained authority to conduct what they term as reckless and lethal pursuit operations (Dlouhy, 2007).


Dlouhy, J.A. (2007, February 25). Top court to decide police chase liability/officers, rights         groups await ruling on paralyzed speeder. San Francisco Chronicle


Hill, J. (2002, July). High-speed police pursuits: dangers, dynamics, and risk reduction. FBI       Law Enforcement Bulletin

            http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2194/is_7_71?            pnum=5&opg=89973554&tag=artBody;col1

Moore, K. (2008). Risks of high speed pursuits. Retrieved Oct 13, 2008, from


Mundy, J. (2006). High-speed police chases: deadly pursuits. Retrieved October 13, 2008,         from


Social Trends in America. (2008). Law enforcements-high speed pursuits: to protect and to        swerve. Retrieved Oct 13, 2008, from

            http://social.jrank.org/pages/1334/Law-Enforcement-High-Speed-Pursuits-Protect-          Swerve.html

Waterloo Police Department. (2004). General order, operations, number 4. Retrieved October    13, 2008, from