Calling All Cars! Police May Curtail High-Speed Chases

LAW enforcement agencies around the country are being urged to put the brakes on high-speed police chases.

And in the wake of numerous unnecessary deaths and accidents each year resulting from such car pursuits, police departments are starting to respond to the call for caution.

In 1990, 314 people were killed in the United States as a result of high-speed police pursuits, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Washington, D.C., alone saw seven deaths in seven months last year as a result of high-speed police chases. In California, 60 people were killed in chases in 1990.

For many safety advocates, the risk of a high-speed car chase far outweighs the reward and is best left for the make-believe world of Hollywood filmmakers. "Just as when a police officer fires a gun, we've got to look at every time a police officer gets involved in a chase," says Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at the College of Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina.

Some states, such as New Jersey and Minnesota, have created strict uniform guidelines for officers involved in pursuits. In other cases, cities, like Mesa, Ariz., have curbed high-speed chases dramatically in favor of alternatives such as aircraft surveillance.

In Massachusetts, state lawmakers are considering one of the most comprehensive proposals in the country for high-speed pursuits. The proposal would create uniform state guidelines for all cities and towns, increase penalties for drivers who flee police, and mandate record keeping and training.

Penalties for eluding police would be mandatory minimum jail sentences from three months to one year and forfeiture of one's automobile. Also included is a so-called "rebuttable presumption" provision which would make it easier to penalize the owner of a vehicle, as opposed to the driver, by tracking down a license plate number and thereby avoiding a pursuit.

"Right now the penalties are very minor for eluding the police. They'll get a fine but these stiffer penalties would have a greater deterrent effect," says Alan Goodman, an attorney who is promoting the Massachusetts legislation. Currently in Massachusetts, as in other states, police from different municipalities use different procedures for pursuits. In some states, there are no specific guidelines at all and pursuits are totally up to the discretion of the officer on the scene.

According to Mr. Alpert, accidents often happen when young, untrained officers are involved. When an officer directs a car to stop and the car instead flees, the result - which he calls "contempt of cop" - can be dramatic.

"It becomes a very competitive race," he says. "And unfortunately it ends up being a drag race with one person going fast to get away and another person going fast to keep up.... There is a cowboy mentality, a macho mentality of not being beaten."

Mr. Alpert, co-author of the book "Police Vehicles and Firearms: Instruments of Deadly Force," recommends that police consider four points regarding high-speed chases. They include:

* Pursuit policy. The idea is to "take discretion away from an officer and put it in written policy," Alpert says.

* Training. An officer would be thoroughly trained on the department's policy.

* Control and supervision. A detached supervisor would be in control of the chase, not the officer behind the wheel.

* Accountability. Detailed reports would be filed for every pursuit.

Some law enforcement officials don't see the need for such strict regulation. Maury Hannigan, commissioner of the Calfornia Highway Patrol, says high-speed pursuits are a necessary tool. He feels police need to pursue drivers as opposed to trying to track them down later by a license-plate number. Drunk drivers, for example, should not be allowed to escape from police and avoid arrest considering the safety hazard they pose, he says.

By not pursuing, "you would reinforce that conduct and the drinking/driving problem would get out of control and your deaths would go up significantly," Commissioner Harrigan says.

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