Experts: Chico Police Pursuit Policy Outdated

By Larry Mitchell
Chico Enterprise-Record
Staff Writer
April 24, 2004

Police experts like professor Geoffrey Alpert and retired police chief D.P. Van Blaricom say pursuit policies like Chico's are old-fashioned and dangerous. Because of the risk pursuits pose to the public and officers themselves, "hundreds and hundreds" of departments across the United States have adopted restrictive policies, said Alpert, a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, who has specialized in studying pursuits.

"A lot of departments have restricted (pursuits) because they know it's the right thing to do," he said. He cited departments in Boston, Miami, Memphis, Orlando, the Illinois State Police, among many others. There is a definite trend toward setting policies that spell out what types of suspects police should pursue and what kinds they shouldn't, he said.

According to Van Blaricom, who was a police officer in Bellevue, Wash., for 29 years and served as chief of police for the last 11, the critical question is whether the risks of a pursuit are justified.

"That issue needs to be contemplated and decided in advance by experienced law enforcement administrators, not left to the chance discretion of an officer on the street, who is suddenly faced with someone who will not stop," he wrote in an article for an Illinois law-enforcement journal this year. In another article, Van Blaricom described how he learned first-hand how risky a pursuit can be. As a 25-year-old patrolman on duty in a rural area in the middle of the night, he chose to chase a driver in a flashy car who was going a little over the speed limit. Van Blaricom suspected the car might be stolen (it wasn't). The flashy car raced away, hit speeds of up to 130 and plowed into another vehicle. A woman died, her husband was seriously hurt, and the fleeing driver himself was killed.

It's estimated more than 350 people die each year in the United States because of pursuits. Many, many more are injured.

Because of the risks, Alpert and Van Blaricom say police should only pursue suspects in serious crimes. Alpert cites studies showing between 55 and 63 percent of chases are started over traffic violations. About a third of all pursuits involve stolen vehicles, according to Alpert, who said there are better ways to catch such offenders. Studies show the beliefs that at the end of a chase police are apt to find "a body in the trunk" and that if police restrict pursuits many more drivers will flee are utter myths, the two experts say. Many departments now only pursue over "violent felonies," Alpert said. That's a criterion he favors. Police chiefs in Florida are among the leaders in reforming pursuit policies he said. "The chief in Orlando did something very unique. He set up a citizens' committee (on pursuits) and said, I'll do what you tell me.'"