April 12, 2005

Police chases

I hate to say this, but the area of police chases (Mar. 15, Mar. 29) is one where the system seems to have worked. Here in Canada, and specifically in Alberta (the most American of our provinces), there was a long history of horrific crashes during high-speed chases. Although it's not so litigious here, the inquests and inquiries were very nasty and protracted (with many billable hours for many lawyers), and there were some suits (still a couple dragging on), though I suppose all somewhat small change by U.S. standards. Prodded by this, the incidents have been substantially reduced, by deliberate effort on the part of the police.

It turns out that buying the cops a couple of helicopters sharply reduces the danger (pretty hard to run from, especially if you can't see them, and they can see you, thanks to high-tech). That, and the cops basically realizing that either a) the very risky high-speed chase simply isn't worth it on a petty charge, and b) on something serious, you're gonna get him anyway. Short term, do some copters and road-blocks; longer term, good old fashioned foot work, and ultimately SWATs. So it takes a day or two or three or a week or two in extreme situations. The real world isn't Hollywood, and less dramatic but more sure police methods are, well, more sure. Nobody I am aware of has gotten away with murder because they drove away very fast after being seen by police. There turn out to be few if any situations where a high-speed high-risk chase is in any way necessary.

Sure, if a bad guy knows that the police will chase him hard, he might be a little more likely to pull over. But these guys aren't very rational anyway, and tend to believe Hollywood themselves, where they are supposed to escape, or anyway walk away from horrific crashes. Why put more people at risk? I've known a few people that died in these things, cops, criminals, and civilians, and it has never been worth it.

On the other hand, there is no way on earth that an individual cop should be burned for doing what he is told is proper practice. This is one situation where the policy makers absolutely should be on the hook, and off-putting punitive damages actually make sense. -- Rob Bray, Calgary, Alberta

I certainly don't oppose efficacious chasing by helicopters. In the California case, the car was stolen and already being driven dangerously when the officer began chase, so I question how petty the chase was. Too, in my mind, someone willing to drive 110 mph the wrong way down the highway and cause multiple accidents demonstrates that they were especially dangerous to begin with. I don't know how valid the "if it's something serious, you're going to get him anyway" argument would prove in a case where the vehicle is stolen and the police don't know ex ante whether the perpetrator will be identifiable.

In addition, if we as a society decline to make millionaires of the crime victims who are killed and injured by those police fail to catch for lack of effort, but do compensate those injured because their injurer was trying to escape police, I worry about the incentives not just for criminals, but for police departments to do their jobs. -- Ted Frank

Posted by Walter Olson at April 12, 2005 10:28 AM

It's foolish in the extreme to suggest that dangerous criminals will be "caught anyway," and therefore should not be chased.

The vast majority of armed bank robbers in the U.S. are not caught; are they to be considered non-dangerous.

It's interesting that the writer brings up Hollywood, which happens to be the bank-robbery capital of the world (or so it would seem to one living there), and where helicopters have proven woefully ineffective, since they take so long to arrive on the scene.

Unless the police force can afford to keep a helicopter in the air 24/7 over every possible place that might be robbed, helicopters are far less reliable as deterrents than police who are actually willing to give chase.

Posted by: michael at April 12, 2005 07:02 PM

Sorry, Rob Bray, but you're just out to lunch. Helicoptors DO help, but not chasing gives the INCENTIVE to put on the speed and try to get away.

We actually had a period of time in American history like this. Police authority ended at the ege of their precinct/county/state (depending on the agency), so armed bandits simply poured on the speed and got out of the area. And many of them were known BY NAME AND FACE and still got away. This time in American history is called the GANGSTER era. I'd rather not relive it, thanks.

Posted by: Deoxy at April 13, 2005 11:07 AM

Rob Bray writes that "Nobody I am aware of has gotten away with murder because they drove away very fast after being seen by police".

Maybe fast is the key. We are all aware of someone who got away with murder after driving away very slowly from police.

Posted by: Glen H at April 15, 2005 11:50 PM