The flashing lights and roaring engines of police pursuits, when dramatized in the movies or on TV, have always captured America's imagination.
In real life, however, many experts are starting to question whether these chases are worth the risks. A hot pursuit may not always be the best way to catch a thief or any other suspect fleeing from the cops, they say, especially on roads filled with law-abiding citizens. The tragic aftermath of many pursuits has sounded an alarm about their safety - and necessity.
Here are just a few recent examples:
*In a settlement this summer, the city of Philadelphia agreed to pay $1.2 million to the family of a father and his infant son who were killed when a police car on a high-speed pursuit jumped the median and struck them.
*Four Chicago police officers may be fired for the fatal shooting of an unarmed passenger in the aftermath of a road chase earlier this year.
*A police chase through a residential neighborhood in Boston in July left four police officers injured and two cruisers smashed.
Indeed, about 40 percent of all police chases end in crashes, and many of these result in injuries and sometimes death, according to statistics from the College of Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. This means that almost every day someone in this country dies as the result of a police-pursuit accident.
"The damage and risk involved in police pursuits is far greater than that for using a gun," says Geoffrey Alpert, director of research at the College of Criminal Justice. "But, despite the fact that more officers drive cars than ever shoot guns, we don't train officers nearly as much on high-speed driving and decisionmaking as we do on the use of firearms."
The thrill of the chase
There's a lot of drama and mystique associated with police chases from movies like "The French Connection" to real-life incidents like the O.J. Simpson chase. In fact, one enterprising man in Los Angeles has set up a subscriber Web site, PursuitWatch Network, which notifies subscribers via cell phone when a police chase is about to ensue.
Now, however, in the wake of the growing number of accidents, many experts are calling for more restrictive rules to guide officers in the decision to pursue - just as there are with firearms.
"We've shown through the years that more restrictive guidelines have minimized the negative outcomes of these pursuits," says Lou Reiter, a former police officer who now runs a law-enforcement consulting firm in Tallahassee, Fla. He also suggests that police departments need to do a better job training officers to use their judgment, and even to make the decision to end a chase.
The biggest argument against this, of course, is that the bad guys will never stop if they know the cops won't pursue.
Spike Helmick, commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, argues that the law is clear: It's unlawful to flee. "The other side always suggests maybe it's not worth the pursuit," he says. "But if you no longer pursue people, what do you think your bank robbers and auto thieves are going to do?"
Even so, some cities have already begun to rethink and revise their pursuit policies.
The Miami police department was one of the first in the country to implement a restrictive pursuit policy in the early 1990s. It is still one of the most restrictive in the country, limiting police officers to chasing felony offenders only.
A matter of public safety
"The purpose of implementing the policy was a matter of safety," says Detective Delrish Moss, spokesman for the Miami police department. "We watched what was happening with other police departments and made decisions accordingly."
Dr. Alpert's research indicates that Miami's policy has resulted in an 80 percent reduction in police pursuits and the resulting accidents.
In Philadelphia, pursuit policy has been revised significantly since 1997 under the direction of police commissioner John Timoney. Under his plan, police officers are required to stop and make sure intersections are clear before driving through stop signs or red lights, even if their sirens are sounding. In addition, police recruits and new officers must undergo 60 hours of post-academy driver's training.
Yet one of the major stumbling blocks for more uniform police-pursuit policies, says Alpert, is that the public still tends to support police chases.
"The public tends to think that's how you catch the bad guys," he says. "But the more the public knows, especially about the statistics of the chases, the less the public is supportive."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society