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License to Use Caution with Vehicle Pursuits

Many police pursuit proponents read with eagerness of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent case involving law enforcement chases. The 2007 case, Scott v. Harris was interpreted by many road rangers as giving more latitude to the officer pursuing the miscreants of the motorways. Actually the ruling should be examined within the scope of it two points. It also serves as a notice that we should re-examine policies and practices when it comes to vehicle pursuits.

As you may recall, Scott v. Harris involved an officer (Scott) who observed a driver proceeding at 73 miles per hour in a 55 posted miles per hour zone. Six minutes and and ten miles passed during which time the plate had been radioed in, speeds were noted as being up to 85 miles per hour, the suspect collided with the pursuing officer, and numerous other officers joined the chase. Officer Scott terminated the pursuit by bumping into the suspect Harris’ vehicle causing the car to overturn. The 19-yearold suspect, Harris, was rendered a paraplegic as a result of the injuries sustained in the crash.

First off, Scott v. Harris is blessed by the advent of 21sst Century video technology. Much like the increasingly video obsessed world that we live in, the Court has shifted in its new use of the video tape to assist it in rendering its decisions. Had the tape not been “in play” in the court’s proceedings, the alleged Fourth Amendment violation of excessive force ruling may have come down for Harris and against Officer Scott.

Several media reports focused on the Justices’ reaction to the law enforcer’s dashboard camera footage as it was being played in the courtroom. The impact of the tape appeared to be strong and may signal a trend within the court system that has long been reflected in the news media and society at large.

Secondly, the ruling addresses the issue of suspect injuries. Harris’ driving apparently shocked the justices’ view of safe driving. The reckless driving of Harris (he swerved around multiple cars, crossed the double yellow line on a highway, and scared drivers into running off the road to avoid a collision) spoke volumes to the members of the bench. As the adage goes: a picture speaks a thousand words. Moving pictures speak even more.

It is important to remember that the ruling does not answer the issue of bystander injuries resulting as a proximate cause of the pursuit. The only issue addressed was the narrow focus of Harris’ injuries.

While the ruling in favor of law enforcement is terrific, as professionals we need to be on guard against using this ruling as a license to pursue recklessly. It is not. Further it should serve as a reminder of vital points for police chasers.

1) Initiate pursuits for reasons that outweigh the risk to the public. In some areas, forcible felony or other similar phrase sums up the codified justification criteria. 2) Make sure your vehicle meets pursuit criteria. For many areas, such a criteria might include being in a fully marked unit with a fully functional emergency lighting system and siren. It may even demand that slick tops refrain from engaging in the pursuits as their visibility in intersections is less than those units adorned with roof racks. 3) Constantly assess weather, road, pedestrian, vehicle traffic, and related conditions for safety to the general public. As mentioned, Scott v. Harris does not absolve pursuing officers of the responsibility to protect the public. 4) Keep in constant radio contact with your dispatcher, other units, and your supervisor. Give updates of speed and direction of travel, as well as the items in number three, so your supervisor can make an accurate, emotionally detached decision whether to terminate the pursuit. As the lead unit, the radio duties should fall to the second unit running lights and sirens behind you. 5) Slow down your breathing and try not to get emotionally tangled up in the pursuit. Remember, we do not chase people for “contempt of cop.” We chase to protect society.

Be sure that you are familiar with your agency’s applicable policies and state statutes. They will be the hooks upon which you can hang your hat on. A clear, concise, report narrative that illustrates your adherence with the polices and statutes are what will save you so that you do not become the next test case in front of the Supreme Court. You do not want to be the case that is that changes direction and is part of the drive against law enforcement.

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