Cedar Rapids police officers have engaged in vehicular pursuits on 55 occasions since the beginning of 2012.
According to statistics provided by the police department, nearly half – 25 – of those pursuits ended in an accident and 24 involved some sort of property damage. Property damaged in those chases includes four buildings, 11 vehicles, six utility poles or signs, two yards and a fence.
More importantly, four of those chases resulted in personal injury. And earlier this month, in Marion – which averages about 5 chases a year – a 30-year-old resident there died when he crashed into a home during a pursuit.
Area police departments and sheriff’s offices say police chases are never welcome, but are sometimes necessary to catch criminals and get potentially dangerous motorists off the road.
“It’s not something we like,” said Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek. “It’s something we try to avoid.”
A researcher and professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina said police pursuits are rarely warranted, however.
“They’re not safe,” said Dr. Geoffrey Alpert, who has researched police pursuits since the 1980s and whose work has been published by the National Institute of Justice. “Thirty to 40 percent end in crashes. Most of the ones that don’t end in crashes, either the suspect escapes or officers terminate them.”
“The risk created by the chase outweighs the need to apprehend the fleeing suspect,” Alpert added.
Locally, there is no universal policy regarding police chases and the restrictiveness of policies varies from department to department. Some departments allow for pursuits for traffic violations while others will only allow pursuits for more serious offenses.
Cedar Rapids Police Sgt. Cristy Hamblin said her department doesn’t outline specific offenses that warrant a chase, but will allow a pursuit for many levels of offenses. According to Hamblin, 39 of the department’s 55 chases since 2012 were for traffic violations.
“Obviously, we don’t chase somebody just because we feel like it,” Hamblin said. “There has to be a violation of some kind; whether it’s a traffic violation, driving under suspension or a warrant.”
While agreeing that pursuits can be inherently dangerous, Hamblin said police have to ask themselves if it would be more dangerous to let a suspect get away, particularly in cases involving potentially impaired drivers.
“If we don’t stop them, are they going to be in an accident and kill someone?” she said. “The responsibility will fall back on us. We look at, ‘Is it a clear and present danger? Is it more of a danger if we don’t do anything?’”
Pulkrabek – whose department engaged in 14 pursuits since 2012 – and Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner – whose department engaged in 16 chases that resulted in an arrest – agreed that, particularly in cases involving impaired drivers, pursuits are often necessary.
But, Gardner said that deputies are also instructed to break off pursuits when conditions would make a chase unsafe. Deputies consider factors such as the seriousness of the offense, the possibility of apprehension, condition of the roadway, weather, the availability of backup, the condition of the patrol car and their own driving skills when before engaging in a chase.
“All of those things need to be considered before you even decide you’re going to initiate a pursuit,” Gardner said.
Gardner also disputes the notion that pursuits are unnecessary if license plate information could later lead officers to the whereabouts of the offender.
“That’s a misconception,” he said. “It doesn’t work that easy. It’d be nice if it did. If it did work that easy, we’d never chase anybody.”
Gardner also pointed out the registered owner of the vehicle might not be behind the wheel of vehicle involved in the case. Furthermore, breaking off a chance and trying to track down a suspect later gives the driver an opportunity to ditch any contraband they might be hiding.
And good luck getting a conviction for drunk driving if the arrest doesn’t occur when the driver is actually impaired, Gardner said.
“Already, they’re a concern, a hazard to the public,” he said. “I think we have an obligation to get those drivers who are impaired off the roadway. Often times, they don’t get home; they wrap themselves around a pole or hit an unsuspecting motorist.”
But Alpert said departments without restrictive chase policies – those that allow for chases following traffic violations or low-level offenses - are “out of touch.”
“They believe the myth that most people who flee from the police are serious criminals,” he said. “They also believe the myth that if police officers don’t chase suspects; everyone is going to run away from them.”
“They may have a harder time catching them,” Alpert said of departments with restrictive policies. “But, it’s not worth it.”
Alpert said chases should be limited to catching those who are suspected to have committed violent offenses.
“Of course, they’re not safe,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’re not worth taking the risk. I draw the line on the standard of violent crime.”
Two Johnson County police departments – the University of Iowa Department of Public Safety and the Iowa City Police Department – carry policies that limit the offenses that would warrant a chase.
The Iowa City Police Department engaged in two pursuits in 2012. The UI police haven’t engaged in a chase in at least three years.
“If we have a violent felony or imminent threat to the public, we may pursue if the officer feels it’s safe to do so,” said Lucy Wiederholt, an associate director for the UI police. “Anything in the misdemeanor traffic violation category, we’re really not likely to engage in a pursuit. It really does have to be a serious violation or crime.”
Iowa City Police Sgt. Vicki Lalla said officers there will follow drivers who commit a “safety violation” or who are considered a safety risk. That rarely includes traffic violations, but can include impaired drivers.
Lalla recalls an incident years ago where she tailed a drunk driver until he finally pulled over after a low speed pursuit.
“I followed a drunk driver driving 20 mph,” she said. “We went around the same block three times before the guy finally pulled over.”
Lalla said, however, that it’s nearly impossible to write a safe, effective chase policy that covers every potential scenario.
“Every situation is so individualized, it’s so different from every other one,” she said. “I think our policy is written to maintain the highest level of safety for everyone – the general public, the person in the car and the officer involved.”