Controversy has surrounded police pursuits for decades. Since numerous studies on the subject began in the late 1980s and early '90s, law enforcement officials, legislators, citizens and the press have taken notice of the ever-rising death toll.
The seven average deaths per week caused by pursuits is a small fraction of the 632 traffic deaths per week in America in 2010 (latest year data is available), but we are not talking about numbers on a spreadsheet, we are talking about human life. When human life is reduced to mere statistics, the impact of its meaning can easily be lost.
The impact women like Milinda Clark and Kristie Priano and men like Paul Farris had on their families, friends, colleagues and classmates will never be lost. These people—a social worker and mother of two; a high school basketball player and avid community volunteer; a recent college graduate and frontman of a popular local rock band—lost their lives because someone chose to flee from the police and the police chose to chase them.
We are not here to argue that police should not try to catch criminals. The oath police take, though, is to protect and to serve their community and the people in it. Officers failed to protect and to serve Clark, Priano, Farris and thousands of other innocent victims.
Many factors contribute to the tragedies that so often follow police chases—policy interpretation, determining the risk the suspect poses to the community, lack of communication, adrenaline, a desire to catch the bad guys—and all of these must be processed in the minds of the officers in a split second.
There has to be a better way. With new technologies and a statewide communication system already in use by many agencies in the metro area, catching criminals without a high-speed chase is easier than ever before.
The members of PursuitSAFETY, all of whom have lost loved ones in pursuit crashes, are leading the way in educating the public, legislators and law enforcement officers in just how dangerous high-speed chases are and rewarding officers who find other ways to catch criminals.
The real question that comes from Jacob Fuller's cover story is: Which is more important to law enforcement officers: catching those accused of low-violence crimes or protecting the lives of the innocent? While the former certainly is a large part of their duties, what is the point if it is not to protect those who follow the law? It is a question of priorities, and if the criminals are taking priority in our society over the innocent, then we need to seriously reconsider the direction our communities are headed.
It is up to the public to be proactive by demanding that our police officers first do no harm. And that state law has the teeth to save lives.