file: Wreckage of the chased vehicle involved in a fatal high speed puruit that killed Cathedral City officer Jermaine Gibson, and injured two others in Palm Springs, March 18, 2011.

file: Wreckage of the chased vehicle involved in a fatal high speed puruit that killed Cathedral City officer Jermaine Gibson, and injured two others in Palm Springs, March 18, 2011.

More than 5,000 bystanders and passengers have been killed in police car chases since 1979, and tens of thousands more were injured as officers repeatedly pursued drivers at high speeds and in hazardous conditions, often for minor infractions, a USA TODAY analysis shows.

The bystanders and the passengers in chased cars account for nearly half of all people killed in police pursuits from 1979 through 2013, USA TODAY found. Most bystanders were killed in their own cars by a fleeing driver.

Police across the USA chase tens of thousands of people each year ? usually for traffic violations or misdemeanors ? often causing drivers to speed away recklessly. Recent cases show the danger of the longstanding police practice of chasing minor offenders.

A 25-year-old New Jersey man was killed July 18 by a driver police chased for running a red light.

A 63-year-old Indianapolis grandmother was killed June 7 by a driver police chased four miles for shoplifting.

A 60-year-old federal worker was killed March 19 near Washington, D.C., by a driver police chased because his headlights were off.

?The police shouldn?t have been chasing him. That was a big crowded street,? said Evelyn Viverette, 83, mother of federal worker Charlie Viverette. ?He wouldn?t have hit my son if the police hadn?t been chasing him.?

Some police say drivers who flee are suspicious, and chasing them maintains law and order. ?When crooks think they can do whatever they choose, that will just fester and foster more crimes,? said Milwaukee Police Detective Michael Crivello, who is president of the city?s police union.

Many in law enforcement, including the Justice Department, have recognized the danger of high-speed chases and urge officers to avoid or abort pursuits that endanger pedestrians, nearby motorists or themselves. At least 139 police have been killed in chases, federal records show.

?A pursuit is probably the most unique and dangerous job law enforcement can do,? said Tulsa Police Maj. Trevor Yates, who runs a national pursuit-training academy.

The Justice Department called pursuits ?the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities? in 1990 and urged police departments to adopt policies listing exactly when officers can and cannot pursue someone. ?Far more police vehicle chases occur each year than police shootings,? the department said.

Police chases have killed nearly as many people as justifiable police shootings, according to government figures, which are widely thought to under count fatal shootings. Yet chases have escaped the national attention paid to other potentially lethal police tactics.

Despite the Justice Department?s warning, the number of chase-related deaths in 2013 was higher than the number in 1990 ? 322 compared to 317, according to records of the Department of Transportation?s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which analyzes all fatal motor-vehicle crashes.

Many police departments still let officers make on-the-spot judgments about whether to chase based on their perception of a driver?s danger to the public. Officers continue to violate pursuit policies concerning when to avoid or stop a chase, police records show. And federally funded high-tech systems that would obviate chases, such as vehicle tracking devices, are undeveloped or rarely used due to cost.

While cities such as Milwaukee and Orlando allow chases only of suspected violent felons, many departments let officers chase anyone if they decide the risk of letting someone go free outweighs the risk of a pursuit.

At least 11,506 people, including 6,300 fleeing suspects, were killed in police chases from 1979 through 2013, most recent year for which NHTSA records are available. That?s an average of 329 a year ? nearly one person a day.

But those figures likely understate the actual death toll because NHTSA uses police reports to determine if a crash was chase-related, and some reports do not disclose that a chase occurred.

Kansas, Michigan and Minnesota state records all show more chase-related deaths than NHTSA shows for those states.

?It?s an embarrassment,? said Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina, a leading researcher on police pursuits who has done numerous Justice Department studies. NHTSA records ?are the only national database we have on these fatalities, and it?s been consistently wrong.?

The number of innocent bystanders killed is impossible to pinpoint because hundreds of NHTSA?s records fail to show whether a victim was killed in a car fleeing police or in a car that happened to be hit during a chase.

Analyzing each fatal crash, USA TODAY determined that at least 2,456 bystanders were killed, although the death toll could be as high as 2,750. The newspaper found that 55% of those killed were drivers fleeing police. They ranged from armed-robbery suspects to a 10-year-old boy chased as he drove a pick-up truck 85 mph on a county road before hitting a tree, killing himself and his 7-year-old passenger.

Injuries are even harder to count because NHTSA keeps records of only fatal crashes.

However, records from six states show that 17,600 people were hurt in chases from 2004 through 2013 ? an average of 1,760 injuries a year in those states, which make up 24% of the U.S. population.

Those numbers suggest that chases nationwide may have injured 7,400 people a year ? more than 270,000 people since 1979.

The uncertainty about the death and injury tolls obscures the danger of police chases, said Jonathan Farris, who became an advocate for pursuit safety after his son Paul, 23, was killed in 2007 by a motorist being chased for an illegal driving maneuver. ?If the public understood the number of pursuits that were going on and the number of people who were being injured or killed, there would be a much better dialogue as to what types of crimes should be pursued,? Farris said.

Source: Thomas Frank , USA TODAY


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