Sewell: Limit dangerous cop chases

By John Sewell – john

Maybe police chases are a necessary evil, or maybe there’s an alternative. They certainly happen with great regularity. According to the chair of the police Services Board, Alok Mukherjee, Toronto police were involved in 245 chases in 2006. Mukherjee made the comment after the horrific crash in which three teenagers were killed in the early morning of June 2 at Finch and Islington.

One car had been traveling at a very high speed, and Gary Clewley, a lawyer who represents the Toronto Police Association, said the officers were pursuing at not much more than 100 km/h. From those comments and reporting by the media, it appears the crash was at least a partial result of a police chase.

There’s a provincial regulation that must be followed by police who engage in a chase, Regulation 546/99. It says that before deciding to chase, the officer must determine “there are no alternatives available;” then the officer must determine whether the chase “outweighs the risk to public safety;” and then the officer must notify the police dispatcher, who then takes control of decision-making about the chase.

This all sounds like a reasonable decision-making process in a normal situation, but chases are anything but normal. The chased and those chasing (the officers) are usually in a state of high excitement, with adrenalin flowing. The speeds are often excessive. And most chases last less than two minutes. Which officer can make a calm and cool assessment of alternatives in this situation?

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell states that a chase drives the heart beat up to such a level that “complex motor skills start to break down. Behaviour becomes inappropriately aggressive.”

He quotes a former Los Angeles police officer about going through neighbourhoods at high speed. “Even if it is only 50 miles an hour. Your adrenaline and heart start pumping like crazy. It’s almost like a runner’s high. It’s a very euphoric thing. You lose perspective. You get wrapped up in the chase. If you’ve ever listened to a tape of an officer broadcasting in the midst of a pursuit you hear it in the voice. They almost yell. For new officers, there’s almost hysteria.”

That kind of quote goes a considerable distance in explaining the frightening data from a 1999 report prepared for the Ministry of the Solicitor-General. It found that between 1991 and 1997 there were 10,421 police chases in Ontario resulting in 33 people dead and 2,415 people injured. In short, one injury for every four chases. Most chases begin because of a minor traffic violation. Less than 2% of the chases in those six years in Ontario began because of a suspected crime of violence.

An individual who is aware that police are following closely and wishes to avoid being stopped will often speed up. A police reaction to increase speed will often result in even more speed by the individual, then more by the officers, until the situation is out of control. Police chases can create the very results which should be avoided.

So what is to be done? Maybe Toronto could get progressive, and try an experiment. It could decide that police not engage in chases. Yes, the police should attempt to stop a car they wish to stop, but if the driver takes evasive action, police should not chase. Instead, they should gather as much information as they can, and notify colleagues about where the car might be headed. Sure, some cars might get away—but most will probably be found, sooner or later, and hopefully there will not be a collision.

The experiment could last three or four months, with a careful independent evaluation about impacts on crime and street safety, including how police officers feel about not having to engage in chases. I’ll bet most mature officers will agree that chases are not productive and far too dangerous.

I know that some members of the Toronto Police Services Board, particularly former judge Hugh Locke, are ready to argue there was no police chase on June 2, and that the media made the thing up.

That’s not the point. Provincial evidence shows that collisions are too frequent an occurrence resulting from police chases. Maybe we should experiment with not allowing chases and see if that makes the city a  safer place.