High-speed pursuits have long been a Catch-22 in law enforcement. On the one hand, police have to avoid putting the public in danger by operating a 2-ton vehicle at high speed while pursuing an erratic driver who is also in a 2-ton vehicle. On the other hand, police don't want to send the message that perpetrators can get away if they flee.
"That police vehicle is a much more dangerous weapon than any police handgun," said Fred Shenkman, an emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Florida who has taught and consulted with law enforcement agencies across the country for more than 40 years.
"You've got sort of an unguided missile, compared to a handgun," he said. "The damage that could be done with two, 4,000-pound vehicles going 90 mph. And you're out there trying to make things safer. But on the other hand, you can't just let people go."
From 1996-2015, an average of 355 people, or about one person per day, were killed annually in pursuit-related crashes, according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Justice report.
Between 2013 and 2018, Hamilton County saw only one fatal police pursuit, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Across the state, there were 51.
Whether to engage in a high-speed chase becomes a question of weighing the potential danger to the officer and the public against the potential advantage of apprehending a fleeing suspect.
"For anyone other than a violent felon, the balance weighs against the high-speed chase," the National Institute of Justice has said.
In one recent case, 32-year-old Randy Goforth was killed after being pursued last summer in Collegedale. Goforth, who had recently been released from prison, was traveling 70-80 mph in a 30 mph zone when he was spotted by Officer Burlon Hayworth with the Collegedale Police Department. After a brief chase, Goforth crashed his car. He died three days later.
Records show Goforth wasn't suspected of doing anything more than speeding, but a toxicology report later showed his blood alcohol content was at 0.11%, just under twice the legal limit.
A significant number of people who flee police end up getting charged with driving under the influence.
But Hodgson said that threat isn't great enough to encourage a chase.
"Chase someone, get them excited, get them scared, and they're under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Nothing good can come out of that," he said.
A 'real tragedy'
Aside from potential loss of life, pursuits come at a high price.
"These pursuits cost departments and cities and you and I, as taxpayers," Hodgson said.
The cost can sometimes be so much that a lot of insurance companies are telling law enforcement agencies, "'If you're going to continue to pursue this many people a year under these circumstances, we can no longer cover you.' Or, 'We'll cover you, but we're going to quadruple your amount of liability,'" Hodgson said.
Across the country, the need to protect against liability brought on by civil lawsuits has driven a need to establish better policies. Without a policy, governments can often be held liable for their officers' lack of training.
So more and more departments have adopted policies for pursuits. And those with already established policies are limiting the circumstances under which pursuits can occur, with some departments even implementing no-chase policies.
Just this year, Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields announced a zero-pursuit policy after several deadly incidents, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She noted a potential rise in crime but added that suspects who are out on bond often become repeat offenders, and that she couldn't justify those pursuits "when the courts aren't even going to hold them accountable."
The reform in pursuit policies is being guided by more evidence-based research, Hodgson said. Most national and state-level accreditation agencies require departments to establish specific policies for their practices, including for pursuits.
A big piece of best practice is preparing officers to determine when a pursuit is worthwhile, Hodgson said. Collegedale, like many departments, offers some guidelines but ultimately lets officers make on-the-spot judgments about whether to chase based on their perception of a driver's danger to the public.
In Officer Hayworth's case, the department reviewed the pursuit months later and found him to be in compliance with department policy.
But while other agencies have made their pursuit policies more strict, Collegedale has made its more lenient. In 2016, Chief Brian Hickman approved a policy that removed specific conditions for when to engage in a high-speed pursuit, including removing the need for probable cause that the suspect has committed or is going to commit a felony.
Now it is left solely up to officer discretion.
"You can train and try to teach [discretion], but — in some cases it works out well, in some cases not," Hodgson said.
That's why a good number of departments are moving toward removing the decision to chase from the officer's discretion, he said.
"They'll have a [supervisor] who will immediately take administrative control over the pursuit and make that determination — without having that adrenaline and emotion of being on the road and being in the car driving at break-neck speeds."
Collegedale police do have a field supervisor who "is in command of the pursuit."
Chattanooga police also are to be in constant contact with a supervisor. But Chattanooga has gone a step further and directed its officers to pursue only when there is reasonable suspicion that the suspect has committed or is committing a violent felony. And the department has defined those felonies as "murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, armed robbery, rape, aggravated kidnapping, child sexual assaults, and aggravated arson."
It further adds that officers "shall not initiate or become involved in pursuits for traffic offenses, misdemeanors, non-forcible felonies or when the suspect flees for an unknown reason."
Ultimately, though, high-speed pursuits will always be a lose-lose situation, Hodgson said.
"Your chances of property damage, chances of personal injury, if not death, are quite high. Much higher than any other form of apprehending a suspect," he said. "You can train your police officers all you want, but don't forget you're chasing someone — who maybe isn't [a good driver], not to mention they're scared, driving too fast; and don't forget, it's not like it's a closed course. They're driving in your streets and mine, with my kids and your kids walking up and down the streets."
"You start factoring in all those variables, and I think you start seeing the real tragedy in this — the lose-lose part."
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