Deadly Force in Vehicle Pursuits
Last night was All Hallow’s Eve and both of my kids had busy social calendars. Since the youngest isn’t driving yet, I was the chauffeur while the Blonde Chick stayed at home to pass out sugary goodies to goblins and princesses.
At one point I picked my son and a friend up from one house to take them elsewhere to meet some friends. As we pulled away from the curb, the friend cautioned me, “don’t run over any trick-or-treaters”. (I’m proud of myself for not whipping out a quick retort dripping with sarcasm, “Damn, I was going for that little Darth Vader near the corner!”) Instead, like every other sane human being, I never got over 15 MPH in the neighborhoods. Everyone else I saw on the streets were similarly exhibiting abundant driving caution.
That’s the sort of thing that reasonable and responsible people do. But it is our fate to share this planet with others for whom reason and responsibility are mysteries yet to be discovered.
Police officers know that the destructive power that moving motor vehicles possess is awesome. Many of us have had the displeasure of seeing the aftermath of all manners of unnatural death. If I had to rank which is more disturbing to view, there would be a tie between burn victims and those ripped apart in a vehicle collision. Ripped and torn flesh, with white bones glistening in the meat – that is a sight that you’ll never forget. My use of the word awesome was not hyperbole – there have been many times I’ve seen the results of a wreck and been struck dumb in awe.
As I watched that idiot in Los Angeles careening into an apartment complex parking lot and driving down sidewalks, I cringed as I envisioned all the costumed little darlings stepping out of their front doors for tricks-or-treats. I also thought that this chase strongly called for intervention by the LAPD to terminate the chase by force – up to, and including, deadly force.
I don’t know why LAPD was chasing this particular idiot (California seems to have more than its fair share of idiots who flee on its roadways). With no mention in the news stories of some underlying crime, I can only assume he was being pursued for a traffic violation. Many critics of police chases, and quite a few chiefs of police, have said that chasing a suspect for a minor violation is wrong. And agencies that have enacted a policy mirroring that philosophy have found that the number of pursuits dropped sharply. But to my mind that is just saying: “It’s not worth chasing him and we sure hope he realizes we gave up before he runs overs someone. But if he does run over someone you can’t blame us – because we weren’t chasing him.” That smells too much like abdication of responsibility for me to be comfortable with.
Police chases have long been a source of controversy – mostly because of the death and destruction that occurs when a fleeing driver – or sometimes a pursuing officer – has a collision. And out of those collisions there has grown a body of case law that has shaped pursuit policies across the nation. Many agencies have responded by severely restricting when an officer can initiate a chase and under what circumstances a pursuit should be called off. Some agencies have also provided new tools such as tire deflation devices, and tactics like PIT (Pursuit Intervention Technique / Precision Immobilization Tactic).
But the fear of lawsuits has driven many chiefs of police to follow their lawyers’ advice, and cover their huge blue behinds by a near total ban on the use of deadly force to terminate a chase. They have protected their budgets, and their personal wealth, but left officers on the street to find their own way and make life or death decisions at their discretion while hoping that they don’t get fired or sued.
In the 1970’s the Supreme Court drew the line on using deadly force to apprehend a suspect who was fleeing without posing an immediate threat to others. That decision arose from a Memphis case in which, following both law and policy, an officer shot a fleeing burglar who refused to stop and was about to go over a fence and get away. Simply put in my words, that case said “you can’t use deadly force as a last resort to affect an arrest – unless the suspect’s continued flight would present a danger to others.” The Supremes said it a little more elegantly:
Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has been given. As applied in such circumstances, the Tennessee statute would pass constitutional muster.
The Supremes came back about fifteen years later, and, while not a pursuit case, did create germane case law dealing with officers’ discretion in making decisions about the use of force.
The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight…With respect to a claim of excessive force, the same standard of reasonableness at the moment applies: “Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers,” … violates the Fourth Amendment. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.
From what I saw of the Halloween chase, there was little opportunity for the pursuing officers to have used force to stop the driver before he bailed out and ran. I won’t bet next month’s pension check on this, but I feel reasonably confident that LAPD policy would have prevented the officers from using deadly force to stop the maniac before he ran over a child. Let me rephrase that – I’m confident that the policy is worded so that, at the very least, the use of deadly force to end a chase is so restrictive that every officer understands that decision will likely cost him his job and jeopardize his family’s financial security. It comes down to making the cops wonder “do I protect others while risking a lot for those I love?”
The Supreme Court has agreed to review a case arising from the 11th Court of Appeals which involves the use of deadly force in a police pursuit in Coweta County, Georgia. As in the Halloween chase, there was an idiot refusing to yield, who drove 90 – 100 MPH through a small town while in running red lights and dodging into the oncoming lanes of traffic. After the chase cleared the town and went into a more rural area, a deputy sheriff terminated the chase by bumping the suspect’s car and causing him to crash. The suspect was paralyzed as a result and he has sued the officers for violating his civil rights. The police agency enjoys immunity through the careful writing of policy by its lawyers.
The officer elected to exercise his discretionary authority after the suspect ran into his car, because he believed the continued pursuit posed a threat of death or serious bodily injury to innocent motorists. The Supremes’ decision here could be monumental.
In a world that makes sense the Supremes would understand that driving like a maniac to get away from the police is the equivalent of walking through town while shooting a rifle in random directions. There will be a lot of misses, but it only takes one hit to destroy a life. As a society I don’t think we can afford to say that enforcing some minor laws by pursuing a criminal is wrong just because the suspect decides to engage in deadly conduct. And that is the key to this issue, it is the suspect who made that decision and the consequences should be on his head. Certainly police officers should have to make sound decisions and use good tactics, but if the only person who gets hurt is the one whose conduct was dangerous in the first place – well, I call that a good day at the office.
I pray the the court will issue a reasonable decision on the upcoming case. But I’m not going to surprised if they disappoint me – as they have too often before.