Ten Deadly Myths and One Fact why unnecessary vehicular police pursuits will continue unabated while deaths of bystanders and officers climb.

By Candy Priano, PursuitSAFETY founder
and victim services director

(Published circa 2004; updated July 4, 2019)


“Absolutely, the person who chooses to flee from the police is to blame. It is his or her primary responsibility to stop for the police. But, knowing that some people will flee, the police have the responsibility to act in a way that protects us—the public.”

—Dr. Geoffrey Alpert, international police pursuit expert

Myth #10

The fleeing offender faces stiff penalties.

There is a myth that those who flee the police receive stiff prison sentences or fines to discourage them and others from this behavior. However, penalties come after the fact—after a violent crash has killed innocent bystanders or police officers. They are rarely considered in the heat of the moment, which removes their effectiveness as a deterrent to fleeing. Ironically, the penalty for fleeing an officer is frequently a slap on the wrist.

“Is it worth the lives and safety of our officers and citizens to chase traffic offenders? What type of penalty will the offender face if caught? I’m sorry, but every law enforcement CEO should put the safety of their community above the need to lock up someone. If their jurisdiction is like Florida, the arrested offender will probably be home before the officer completes their paperwork.”

—Steven H. Jones, chief of the Orange County (Florida) Sheriff's Office

Myth #9

When suspects who flee the police

crash into civilians and deaths occur as a result,

officers are not responsible for those deaths

Law enforcement spokespersons perpetuate this myth when they speak to the media after fatal pursuits. They state, “If the driver hadn’t fled, this would not have happened."

People rightfully so blame the fleeing driver for a crash, while removing any blame from the officers who took up the fatal pursuit. Trained officers know better than to participate in a high-risk tactic, leaving it to the fleeing suspect to control the situation. How do we know this tactic is high-risk? Consider this statistic: At least one-third of deaths resulting from police pursuits are innocent bystanders.

It’s hard to believe law enforcement CEOs and trained officers would accept any other police tactic with this number of deaths to the innocent and continue doing the same thing.

“The first question is why do officers sometime pursue unnecessarily? The answer is not as easy as it seems; factors as I see it. First the officers are sworn to uphold the law; as I have been told from officers many times the decision to pursue is not theirs but the offenders and if you give them the freedom to know they only have to run then apprehending violators of laws will do just that; not taking in risks factors or understanding dangers to themselves and others. My views have changed over the years because of the loss of lives; injuries I have witnessed and also the loss of my son; not in a pursuit but because of unnecessary speeding in a patrol car.”

—Thomas Gleason, Capt. (Ret.), State of Florida Fraud Division;
Owner, Honor the Badge Police Training

The officer refused to back-off from the chase, per the supervisor's order.
No Interagency Communication when pursuit crossed jurisdictions
Officers didn't know or intentionally violated pursuit policy
Officers stopped her and made no effort to move her to safety

Myth #8

It’s the victims’ fault; they should have gotten out of the way.

Many—perhaps wanting to feel that they themselves would survive such an event—blame the victims of pursuits for not responding appropriately and protecting themselves. They think if civilians heed lights and sirens and simply pull off to the side of the road, they would avoid these fatal crashes.

In truth, only 24% of drivers can determine the location and direction of a police car from the sound of the siren (ALERT International).

Moreover, the suspect’s vehicle—not the police car—is the lead car in a pursuit, making it more difficult for citizens to hear sirens and see lights as they approach intersections—sometimes blind intersections. Therefore, most pursuit policies do not allow pursuits “if they are traversing traffic-controlled intersections.”

“One of the things people have to realize is if the officer is going above 55 mph, everyone ahead of the officer cannot hear the siren. So it should be realized that at 55 mph, a siren is virtually ineffective.”
Police Lt. Kevin Gilpin, Erlanger, Kentucky

“Police are given certain privileges by law to help maintain an orderly society. Those rules are given to them to follow and not abuse. For example, they are provided lights and sirens to warn us of an impending danger and to signal for us to pull over when they need to talk with us or get us out of the way. These lights and sirens are just that: warning devices. Police officers are trained to understand that many civilians do not hear or see these warning devices and to drive ‘with the due regard for the safety of all motorists.’”
—Dr. Geoffrey Alpert, international police pursuit expert

“Do police expect us all to hear exactly the same thing and recognize the direction of a siren? Are we not allowed to listen to the radio or have conversations with each other on a family drive? Sure, we are not supposed to have music on so loud that it interferes with our driving, but that is a far cry from normal and reasonable listening that could cover up a siren in the distance. Do you think deaf citizens should not be able to drive?”
Dr. Geoffrey Alpert, international police pursuit expert

“Drivers who do hear the siren, have no time to react.”
—Retired Police Chief Donald Van Blaricom,
Bellevue, Washington

Myth #7

If officers don’t chase, someone else might get killed.

Police use this myth to justify any chase even those for known suspects to distance themselves from a real victim or victims. It tells thousands of bereaved families of innocent bystanders killed and who suffered from the violent crashes of vehicular police pursuit that their loved ones are acceptable collateral damage to these officers, that their deaths are necessary to protect the greater majority.

It is possible to apprehend a suspect without engaging in a car chase. An officer who does not pursue an unknown suspect for policy reasons or calls it off for safety reasons needs to alert the public that a potentially dangerous suspect has fled from the police and is still at large. We use this system to find missing children (AMBER alerts). With pursuits, the police can give the media details of the suspect and the vehicle he or she was driving. This is a method proven to be effective in apprehending individuals.

The media almost exclusively uses law enforcement officials as their primary sources when covering deadly crashes involving innocent victims, making “If officers don’t chase, someone else might get killed” a myth to justify all pursuits and easily disseminated to the public.

Yet, citizens become frustrated when they hear of officers releasing criminals, even murderers, because of lack of evidence, and our courts having become revolving doors for child molesters, rapists, and murderers.

Killing the innocent does not save lives.

Myth #6

If police pursuit practices were problematic, 

our elected legislators would fix the problem.

Elected officials do, in fact, address broken laws such as those governing police pursuits, but often have to fight powerful lobbies to do so. California Senator Sam Aanestad, a law-and-order Republican and author of Kristie’s Law, is one legislator who never wavered in his stand on putting public safety first. His honest efforts to address the crisis of pursuit fatalities in California prompted threats of political retaliation against the senator. However, he put his own political ambitions aside in order to introduce legislation that would save lives.

“California Law Enforcement is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state. Additionally, the endorsement of political candidates by Law Enforcement is a very important element in any campaign.”
—Jim Phillips, PursuitWatch.org

Myth #5

Split-second decisions are to blame for police pursuit fatalities.

So often we hear that officers must make split-second decisions when initiating or conducting pursuits. Following good policy, common sense, and accountability, the split-second decision myth doesn’t hold water. For example, it is not in the interest of public safety for an officer to “light up” a suspect in a stolen vehicle in a store parking lot or on any road—highways, city streets, or residential neighborhoods. Urban pursuits end in a collision at a traffic-controlled intersection 40 percent of the time. Chances are, the officer and suspect will encounter such an intersection if traveling on city streets and neighborhoods. The individual driving that stolen car most likely will not pull over appropriately. Instead, the driver will “bolt,” putting everyone in the vicinity in harm’s way. The same thing applies if the suspect has violated parole. The officer needs to assess the situation and think of other ways to apprehend the suspect. Good policies include alternatives to pursuit for known flight risks.

In many of these chases for known car thieves and non-violent parole violators, we often hear that the pursuit lasted only “90 seconds" or “60 seconds." Most pursuits last a total of two minutes. The length of a pursuit does not make a difference to the families of innocent victims. It is as if the length of a chase justifies the killing and maiming of innocent people.

Jim Phillips wrote about the Split-Second Myth.
“Life or death decisions? To be sure. Decisions made on the fly or in a split-second? Not by baseball players or by good, well-trained officers."

Myth #4

Pursuit crashes are just ‘car accidents.’

Crimes committed with cars are common. Innocent victims and their families are often victimized again when the media, the public, and the courts call these crimes “car accidents.” Pursuits occur when a person makes the conscious decision to flee and an officer makes the equally conscious decision to chase. The dangers are inherent in the decisions; they are not a surprise or an accident when they occur.

People who flee are self-absorbed; they are not thinking about the safety of others. The burden to protect innocent victims, by necessity, falls on the police.

A letter from Desiree's mom and dad describes the pain of having the death of their daughter in a reckless police pursuit down a street filled with schoolchildren called an “accident.”

Myth #3

Drivers flee the police because there’s a dead body in their trunk.

Many think—and police encourage this—that the only reason a person would refuse to pull over when cued by police to do so is that they are hiding a much worse crime than the one they are being pulled over for. But when was the last time you have read or heard a news story where a police pursuit for a traffic violation or other, minor offense ended with the capture of an unknown murderer with a dead body in their trunk? To hear police tell it, one might think this happens all the time. However, police rarely discover murder victims this way. It is certainly not worth endangering innocent lives to chase suspects who, to the police’s knowledge, have only committed non-violent acts.

Real Reasons Why Police Pursue

91.4% of all chases are for non-violent crimes
(Source: The International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2008)

Myth #2

If officers didn’t chase fleeing suspects, more drivers would flee.

Law enforcement officials repeat this myth over and over again. One could mistakenly conclude that a mandatory reduction in police pursuits via restrictive pursuit policies—allowing chases for only violent felons—would render police officers completely powerless.


“First step: recognize the problem that deaths and injuries are not just a part of doing police work. Second step: Culture change of agency and leadership. Some believe to reduce crimes, the risks to the public is second to apprehending those who break laws and commit civil violations (speeding, etc.). Change comes with pressure from communities to see change. Accountability; good polices; review of any and all pursuits with the idea how can we improve. Training of agencies in reducing risks while still enforcing laws. Good supervision based on solid decision-making skills, realistic training scenarios; good polices. Most important is holding people accountable for their actions. Part of that is the courage of administrators to always be open to change, new ideas, ways to enforce laws while reducing risks to sworn members and the public. Never forgetting the purpose is to serve the public; not the other way around. Keep in mind heads of municipal agencies will be in the position for no longer than 3 to 5 years, culture change takes three years.”   

—Thomas Gleason, Capt. (Ret.), State of Florida Fraud Division;
Owner, Honor the Badge Police Training

These three studies prove otherwise: 

Results from the LAPD Review

Phoenix Policy Change Review

Department of Justice Study

Myth #1

Not that many innocent people get killed in pursuits.

The oft-repeated statement that pursuit fatalities are exceedingly rare gives the public a false sense of security. It makes people think that not only will they never experience one themselves, but it isn’t worth worrying about at all.

In truth, these crashes occur daily in America. However, they are spread out geographically and almost never covered by national media. This means that only the loved ones left behind—to bury their dead and take care of their permanently-injured loved ones—feel the full brunt of the deaths and injuries.    

Some researchers and members of law enforcement believe pursuits continue unabated because a pursuit crash has not yet killed “the right person”—someone high-profile enough to draw national attention to this crisis.

“I didn’t think it would happen to my family either. My children made good choices and respected police officers, teachers, coaches, and adults. About a month before Kristie was killed as I was changing channels on my TV, I saw a police chase end in a horrific crash. I turned off the TV and said out loud to myself, “Someone could get killed doing that,” never realizing at the time that people do get killed doing that. Not until Kristie died did I understand that police chases kill innocent people.”
—Candy Priano, founder of PursuitSAFETY

Read about "Apathy" right here.

Fact: Tragedy brings change.

The good news is that change is happening in legislative bodies and police departments. Making our lives safer is what police do, and that’s why we support and work with law enforcement. But change is difficult for everyone, especially for officers who are trained to make our lives safer. There has been significant push-back from some in law enforcement regarding improving laws concerning police pursuits. However, many police departments have discovered the benefits of safer legislation. Pursuits are the most dangerous police tactic, killing more innocent civilians than bullets from officers’ firearms, and we continue to fight for better pursuit policies to save lives.