Are High-Speed Police Chases Worth It?

Apr 25, 2017

High-speed chases down busy highways have become a news staple, as police attempt to arrest alleged criminals. But the people most often hurt by these scenes are the innocent civilians. Thousand have been injured or killed over the past few decades.

On this week’s episode of 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, law professor and host David Harris talked to Dr. Geoff Alpert of the University of Carolina about whether these high-speed chases are really worth the cost.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

DAVID HARRIS: When we see high speed chases on TV, there's this sort of red blooded part of us that wants to catch the bad guys. What are the consequences to letting suspects go?

GEOFF ALPERT: Well, the best consequence is the likelihood that the suspect will slow down and therefore the roads will be safe again. Police departments can also put resources into capturing the person who gets away for the moment. And the worst case scenario is the person gets away and is not apprehended. But, again, the roads are safe.

HARRIS: Now you said that 35 to 40 percent of high speed pursuits end in a crash. Now when that happens, who's most likely to get hurt? Who's getting hurt?

ALPERT: Well, the driver often gets hurt. The person who may be in the car with the driver gets hurt. But shockingly, close to 25, 30 percent of those who get injured are innocent bystanders, either pedestrians or drivers of other vehicles.

HARRIS: And when we say “hurt,” we mean sometimes they die.

ALPERT: The injuries range from very slight to death. Yes.

HARRIS: Now, officers say that these pursuits are really required because you have to capture fleeing felons, the sort of “body in the trunk” idea. Is that what most of these chases are about -- capturing fleeing, violent felons?

ALPERT: Well, they should be, but unfortunately they're not. They're about chasing anyone who disobeys the order to stop. Most of them are traffic, most of them are minor and most of them shouldn't happen.

HARRIS: Now, you've looked at what happens when officers break off a pursuit too, when they turn off the lights, the siren, pull off the road. What do you find happens when officers do that?

ALPERT: We find that suspects very quickly slow back down to reasonable speeds, drive within the law and are safe. So, it's amazing how much control the police officer has by simply turning off his emergency equipment and pulling off and signaling to the fleeing suspect. You’re safe, you win and the person will slow down quite rapidly.

HARRIS: Does this inspire more people to flee from the police?

ALPERT: We don't see that more people are fleeing when police officers don't chase or terminate their chases. Once in a while, you'll see a small spike for car theft. For example, if departments don't chase, but it last a short period of time and it's certainly worth the loss of apprehension compared to the safety of the roads.

HARRIS: But you're pretty committed to the idea that having a good policy on police chases makes all the difference. What's the key ingredient or two ingredients to a good policy?

ALPERT: Well, “let me have a good policy” is one of the pillars. You certainly have to have good training, supervision and accountability. But to your question, it has to be the reason for the chase. These cases need to be restricted to violent crimes and supervisors need to enforce that. And when officers and supervisors don't, they need to be disciplined. So, I think it's the reason for the crime -- but even when there's a violent crime if it's, for example, through a school zone at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, it's not worth it.

HARRIS: In a perfect world, how should we be tracking this activity and what would the good outcomes look like on the street?

ALPERT: In a perfect world, people wouldn't flee from police, so we can start there. But to be more realistic, we would have the police only chase after the most serious offenders and be cognizant of traffic, be cognizant of pedestrians and not put people at high risk for minor offense.

HARRIS: Dr. Jeffrey Alpert University of South Carolina thanks very much for being with me.

ALPERT: Happy to do it. 

You can hear more about Geoff Alpert and his research on this week’s episode of WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on iTunes, though your favorite podcast app and at criminalinjusticepodcast.com.