New guidelines for police chases released last week by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. promote common sense and public safety. While police departments are not required to follow them, any police force that cares for its citizens should incorporate the main idea put forth by Mr. Zappala’s office, in consultation with the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association: Pursue suspects wanted for grave felonies.
A horrific crash on Thanksgiving Day prompted the review. Demetrius Coleman was pulled over by East McKeesport police for a traffic violation and found to be wanted for an outstanding drug warrant. He sped away from the scene. A North Versailles officer, called in for back-up, gave chase. Coleman reached speeds of 100 mph, ran a red light and plowed into a car, killing a family of three (including a 2-year-old girl) and injuring others. The North Versailles officer was not charged with breaking policy; the driver’s recklessness was so extreme that it was not likely the result of an over-aggressive pursuit.
Mr. Zappala warned that “there will be ramifications” for officers who do not follow the policy, including going before a grand jury. It’s good to put teeth into the policy. But in practice, the overwhelming majority of officers should welcome it. Contrary to what is seen on TV cop shows, reality or otherwise, police officers really don’t like engaging in high-speed pursuits. It’s dangerous to them, for one. They can quickly lose control of the situation. If suspects don’t pull over right away, other methods exist to track them down. That’s why the policy is also wise to make clear that officers who call off a pursuit will not face discipline or “inappropriate criticism.”
Last year, Mr. Zappala advised departments to begin using “Stop Sticks” — tire-deflation devices placed under the wheels during traffic stops — but some police have pointed out that the devices don’t work in every situation and can expose police to other risks. Technologies such as StarChase — which attaches a GPS tracker to a car about to flee — might prove more effective. Nearly 100 police agencies nationwide use the device, which costs around $5,000. Federal grants or drug forfeiture proceeds could help cover the costs.
While the data-driven advances may reduce the need for chases, the fact remains that sometimes they will be necessary, if the suspect presents a clear danger. The new guidelines will help reduce the second-guessing that police may endure in the aftermath of a pursuit gone wrong, and should be embraced across the board.