The pursuit lasted less than two minutes.
When it was over, two bystanders — one in a nearby car, the other a pedestrian — were dead, killed by a driver allegedly fleeing police in a stolen vehicle.
Determining whether high-speed police chases, like the one in Brighton, are permitted under departmental policy can often be murky and revolve around certain definitions of “imminent danger to the public” that can be subjective, police experts say.
Brighton police Chief Paul Southard said Tuesday said the city has a “very comprehensive policy” on when officers are to engage in a vehicle pursuit.
“We don’t pursue for property crimes, non-violent crimes … traffic offenses,” he said in a news conference.
A review of Front Range police department policies shows that agencies generally view vehicle chases as only necessary in the most serious circumstances.
Denver’s police department, for instance, does not view DUIs, auto thefts or even attempted vehicular assault as compelling reasons to engage in a vehicle pursuit, according to its policy manual.
Vehicle pursuits under Brighton’s policy “are generally not authorized for property crimes, including stolen vehicles, absent exigent circumstances,” the department’s policy manual says.
“Officers shall not initiate or participate in a vehicle pursuit unless they reasonably believe they are attempting to apprehend a person or persons whom they know or reasonably believe would present an imminent danger to human life or cause serious bodily injury,” Brighton’s policy states.
One factor that makes Monday’s deadly chase less cut-and-dry: The suspect driver allegedly rammed into an officer’s car after police had responded to the suspicious vehicle call, police said.
Brighton officers are permitted to initiate a pursuit if officers have “reasonable suspicion to believe that the suspect has committed or is about to commit … a violent felony crime.”
“The fact that he immediately ran into a police car, that does change the crime,” said Paul Taylor, an assistant professor with the University of Colorado Denver and law enforcement instructor. “It’s not merely a property crime anymore.”
Whether or not officers should engage in vehicle pursuits also depends on a host of other factors, Taylor said: Time of day, traffic, the presence of pedestrians and whether or not the area is heavily populated or in the open country.
“We’re wrestling with this as a society,” he said. “How engaged do we want officers to be in these situations?”
Police chiefs are grappling with this very question.
Erika Shields, who earlier this year was tabbed to lead Louisville’s police department after 25 years with the Atlanta Police Department, said that she’s “never been a fan of police pursuits.”
“Going through my career, I saw too many innocent people killed because police drove recklessly,” she told the Police Executive Research Forum in an interview. “But I also understand that pursuits have a role. As chief, I tried to rein them in. I had a lot of angst over it. When you have 21- or 22-year-old officers and you are giving them a two-ton steel object to go flying through the city streets at 80 miles per hour, it’s not a good practice.”
In a 1997 report by the National Institute of Justice, 40% of law enforcement officers reported that a pursuit in which they were driving the primary vehicle resulted in an accident.
“Pursuit driving is a dangerous activity that must be undertaken with due care, only after an understanding of the specific risks as well as the need and realistic methods to apprehend a fleeing suspect,” the report stated.
Between 1996 and 2015, an average of 355 people — about one a day — were killed annually in pursuit-related crashes, according to a 2017 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Nearly two-thirds of those fatalities involved people inside the pursued vehicle. Just over 1% of those killed in these chases were occupants of the pursuing police vehicle.
Even the justification for police to chase after people wanted for felonies can be murky, said Aya Gruber, a University of Colorado professor of law, noting people in these situations are often released on bail and allowed to live in society while their case is adjudicated.
“Why does that particular offense — ramming and fleeing police — why is that the type that would justify a high-speed chase?” she said. “What is it about it? We think this guy is such a dangerous criminal that we would never find him? Or is it because he’s an imminent threat to other people?”
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