Chasing danger

High-speed police chases are dangerous not just to police and the suspects they are pursuing but to bystanders as well. Sober reminders of this fact occurred this weekend, when two police chases resulted in two fatalities.

In one case, a 27-year-old Cockeysville man died after the motorcycle he was driving collided with a Baltimore city police cruiser that had been pursuing him from the city into the county. The police officer driving the cruiser has been suspended, pending an investigation into whether he disregarded orders from supervisors to call off the chase, which began in the city and ended in Baltimore County.

In the second case, a 25-year-old Virginia woman was killed Sunday afternoon after a man police were chasing crashed a truck into the car she was driving in South Baltimore. The driver of the truck had allegedly rammed his vehicle into police cruisers before leading officers on the chase, running a stop sign and colliding with the woman's car at the intersection of Monroe and McHenry streets.

Baltimore police officials have put severe restrictions on conducting chases in the congested city. Police are told to chase a vehicle only if the driver or passengers are believed to have committed a violent crime or pose a risk to public safety. On the occasions when supervisors authorize a chase, officers are forbidden from driving more that 10 mph over the posted speed limit and must stop at every red light and stop sign before proceeding, or clearing an intersection.

This is wise policy. Studies have detailed the dangers of conducting high-speed chases in metropolitan areas, noting that — in all but the most extreme circumstances — the risks to public safety and the possibilities of lawsuits are simply too great. Instead of adrenaline-packed pursuits, experts recommended tactics such as following the suspect with a police helicopter and setting up roadblocks.

Still, these alternative tactics have limitations. Baltimore's police helicopter was grounded by weather on Sunday afternoon when one pursuit occurred and was not flying at 3 a.m., when the other incident happened.

Moreover, alternative tactics are not without their risk. In April of 2000, Baltimore Police Officer Kevon M. Gavin was killed when his vehicle was broadsided by a Ford Bronco police were pursuing. Officer Gavin had blocked a part of West Lombard Street with his cruiser.

In the recent pursuit of the motorcyclist, initial indications are that the police officer involved was not following department policy. In the South Baltimore case, where the suspect rammed police vehicles, it appears that guidelines were followed. Yet both instances ended with fatalities. Even when police respond with proper restraint, some suspects will drive dangerously.

The urge to catch the bad guys is a strong one. That is what we count on our police force to do. But we also count on them to exercise good judgment and a light foot on the accelerator. A 1997 U.S. Justice Department study found that a suspect who does not know he or she is being pursued will drive in a reasonably safe manner, and that pursued suspects who are driving dangerously will slow down after the police terminate a pursuit.

Police can't control the driving behavior of the suspects they are pursuing, but they can refrain from making a dangerous situation worse.

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