Can Use of Force Policies Reduce the Dangers of Police Vehicle Pursuits?

Introducing Our Model Use of Force Policy Beta Release

The Stanford Center for Racial Justice has begun publishing chapters of our comprehensive Model Use of Force Policy in beta release. The Model Policy is intended to contribute to the long line of efforts to improve and reform policing and promote practices that will be fair, safe, and equitable for everyone. This essay is a continuation of our staff’s discussion examining how the Model Policy interacts with scenarios officers may find themselves in. Read Chapter 6 of the Model Policy—Vehicle Pursuits and Tactical Apprehensions—here.

Police vehicle chases often sound thrilling. They may give rise to images of multiple patrol cars following behind a fleeing vehicle for miles as the motorist screeches around turns. Or they may evoke a dramatic scene of spike strips deployed to puncture the motorist’s tire, successfully bringing the car to a slow stop. Naturally, one might imagine that these scenarios always end with officers catching a dangerous suspect while avoiding any injuries.

However, the reality is that police vehicle pursuits can be a dangerous method of apprehending individuals, thereby exposing police officers, uninvolved motorists, and innocent bystanders to death or serious bodily injury. For example, in a recent incident in 2022, two innocent motorists were killed by an individual fleeing a Los Angeles Police officer’s vehicle. Another recent vehicle pursuit by a Cobb County Georgia police officer resulted in the death of an innocent motorist.

Wider studies show these single incidents becoming trends. A USA Today study, for example, found that between 1979 and 2013, 5,000 bystanders and passengers were killed in police vehicle pursuits nationwide—with “tens of thousands more . . . injured by these incidents.” Another study found that, on average, 355 people were killed annually from pursuit-related crashes. In Los Angeles, around 11 percent of pursuits result in injury or death.

Although many police departments maintain vehicle pursuit policies, data suggests that officers engage in more pursuits when a policy grants wide discretion to an officer to initiate them. Policies that grant wide discretion can lead to dangerous situations where, as data also suggests, officers often initiate a chase based on minor traffic violations. This can also have especially dire consequences for Black motorists.

Recently, we released the Vehicle Pursuits and Tactical Apprehensions chapter of our comprehensive Model Use of Force Policy, outlining guidelines to reduce the dangers of vehicle pursuits. In this essay, we illuminate the risks of initiating a vehicle pursuit and undertaking pursuit practices—as well as the laws behind these practices.

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Why are vehicle pursuit guidelines in the Model Policy?

Vehicle pursuits are not typically thought of as a use of force. However, police pursuits sometimes end in a police officer using force—for instance, through the officer’s body or vehicle, among other ways. In the latter situation, the U.S. Supreme Court has explained that using a police vehicle to intervene with another vehicle is a “seizure” and governed by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Even if officers decide not to make contact with the motorist in the vehicle pursuit, they pose many risks to other drivers, innocent bystanders, and other third parties uninvolved with the pursuit. A written policy on foot pursuits should make the dangers of vehicle pursuits clear and guide officers in making decisions under these circumstances.

What are the U.S. Supreme Court rules for police vehicle pursuits?

The Supreme Court has primarily spoken on the issue of terminating vehicle pursuits—particularly surrounding intervention methods such as PIT (precision immobilization technique) maneuvers and discharging firearms at a moving vehicle. For example, PIT maneuvers are governed by the federal “reasonable officer” standard. That is, at a minimum, an officer’s decision to undertake a PIT maneuver is a balancing act. The act requires officers to weigh “the risk of bodily harm that [the officer’s] actions posed” to the fleeing motorist against “the threat to the public that [the officer] was trying to eliminate.”

The standard governing PIT maneuvers arose out of the Supreme Court case: Scott v. Harris. On a late March “misting” night in 2001, Georgia deputy sheriff Clinton Reynolds clocked motorist Victor Harris driving 73 miles per hour on a highway—18 over the speed limit. Reynolds flashed his blue lights at Harris; however Harris didn’t stop because he was “scared, wanted to get home, and wanted to avoid an impound fee for his vehicle.”

Reynolds decided to pursue Harris. Despite finding no issues with Harris’ vehicle registration, Reynolds activated his lights and sirens in an attempt to pull over Harris for the speeding violation. However, Harris elected to increase his speed and led Reynolds on a chase “well in excess of the speed limits.” Harris used his turn signal to weave in and out of traffic on a two-lane road. Harris crossed over solid double-yellow lines and ran through red lights to attempt to escape Reynolds’ chase.

While pursuing Harris, Reynolds announced his decision to initiate the chase over the dispatch radio, as well as Harris’ license plate number. Reynolds did not specifically request a back-up unit and did not announce the underlying charge of his decision to initiate the chase—speeding. Subsequently, another deputy sheriff, Chuck Scott, heard about the chase and decided to join.

With two sheriff deputies now pursuing Harris, he began slowing down and used his blinker to turn into a shopping complex’s parking lot. Harris intended to make a U-turn in the lot to get back onto the highway. Reynolds followed Harris closely behind. However, Scott attempted to box Harris in between his own and Reynolds’ vehicle. Scott drove directly into the path of Harris’ vehicle. When Harris realized this, he turned his vehicle and attempted to avoid hitting Scott’s. Harris’ vehicle made contact with Scott’s and caused “minor damage.” Harris narrowly escaped the collision and continued driving onto the highway on-ramp.

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Reynolds and Scott continued to pursue Harris on the highway at high speeds as Scott took over as the primary pursuit unit. Scott requested permission from his supervisor to make contact with Harris’ vehicle using a PIT maneuver on the highway. Despite not knowing the offense for which the sheriffs were pursuing Harris, Scott’s supervisor approved the maneuver—stating “Go ahead and take him out. Take him out.”

Scott caught up to Harris. However, Scott quickly realized he could not perform the maneuver because of the high speed with which both vehicles were traveling. Instead, Scott decided to ram the back of Harris’ vehicle. Scott’s vehicle made contact with Harris’, causing it to lose control. Due to the contact, Harris veered off the roadway and crashed into an embankment. As a result of the crash, Harris became quadriplegic. No one else was injured by the pursuit or intervention.

After the incident, Harris sued the officers who undertook and approved the intervention. After both lower courts allowed Harris’ lawsuit to proceed, the case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court and was even featured in a television show called, “Why I Ran.”

The Supreme Court rejected two lower court’s rulings and decided that Scott’s use of the intervention technique was constitutionally reasonable—which meant that it did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Despite reviewing the case in an early stage of litigation, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s version of the facts. Instead, the Court based its reasonableness decision on the dashcam video—reasoning that the risks that Harris’ “reckless” driving posed to the “lives of any pedestrians who might have been present, to other civilian motorists, and to the officers involved in the chase,” outweighed the risk of death to Harris. They further reasoned that because the decision to cease the pursuit would not have entirely eliminated the risk of Harris driving recklessly, the officers’ actions were reasonable.

The Supreme Court’s vehicle pursuit analysis was heavily concerned with the possibility of motorists’ supposed risk if a fleeing motorist escapes a chase. The Court prioritized apprehension of a motorist—cloaked as the Court’s priority of bystander safety—regardless of the risk to the motorist or the severity of the alleged violation. The Supreme Court’s analysis set the minimum bar for police vehicle pursuit policies. However, states and municipalities can go beyond such constitutional minimums to ensure the safety of their communities.

How would provisions of the Model Policy apply to the vehicle pursuit of Harris?

The Model Policy attempts to reflect the dangers of vehicle pursuits by first outlining the risks of vehicle pursuits—“injury or death to officers, subjects, and bystanders.” As a result, the Model Policy “require[s] strong justification” for vehicle pursuits. Additionally, the Model Policy rejects vehicle “eluding”—refusing to stop—as a justification for initiating a pursuit. It further prohibits punishing an officer for deciding against the initiation of a vehicle pursuit and requires the use of any force during a vehicle pursuit to comply with authorization standards in the Model Policy.

Next, the Model Policy sets out four requirements to initiate a vehicle pursuit.

  • The officer must determine that an occupant of the eluding vehicle “committed or attempted to commit a crime of violence.”
  • The “subject’s escape” must “pose an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person.”
  • The officer must determine that they can initiate the pursuit safely based on certain factors—including the risk of the subject’s conduct to third parties, known information on the subject, road configuration, physical location and population density, existence of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, lighting and visibility, and weather and environmental conditions, along with a few other factors.
  • The officer must “receive supervisory approval” before initiating the pursuit. Pursuing officers must “provide a supervisor with an account of the totality of the circumstances surrounding the proposed vehicle pursuit” so the supervisor can make an informed decision.

In Reynolds’ decision to pursue Harris, first, the officer could not determine whether Harris committed a “crime of violence;” therefore pursuit would not have been authorized. Reynolds could point only to Harris’ speeding violation. Harris’ “eluding” alone was also not a justification for initiating a pursuit under the Model Policy.

Second, Harris’ escape also would not have “pose[d] an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person.” Again, Harris’ speeding traffic violation, while unsafe, did not pose an imminent threat of death to Reynolds or anyone on the highway late at night.

Third, under the Model Policy, Reynolds would have been required to consider certain factors to decide to safely initiate his pursuit. Reynolds could potentially point to Harris’ weaving in and out of the two-lane highway as a “risk that [Harris’] conduct [posed] to third parties.” Harris, however, used his blinker to signal. Further, Harris did not drive in this manner until after Reynolds initiated pursuit. Reynolds might have also considered the “misting” as important “weather and environmental conditions”—especially at night—to signal he could not safely undertake the pursuit.

Finally, Reynolds would have been required to receive supervisory approval to pursue Harris. Although Reynolds informed central command that he was initiating the pursuit, Reynolds failed to “provide [his] supervisor with an account” of the full facts; Harris was being pursued for a traffic violation. The Model Policy requires all of these requirements be met to initiate a pursuit.

If the requirements are not met to initiate a pursuit, the Model Policy lays out “moving surveillance” and “tactical apprehension” procedures that an officer can elect. Alternatively, if the officer gathered information about the motorist, the officer can apprehend an individual at a later time. The Model Policy also outlines authorized and prohibited conduct during the course of a vehicle pursuit. When deciding whether to undertake vehicle pursuit interventions, an officer must also meet certain requirements. Some tactics, however, are outright prohibited by the Model Policy—such as fixed or moving roadblocks, ramming, boxing in, and discharging a firearm to stop a vehicle.

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Victor Harris, interviewed in Why I Ran

In Harris’ case, the second pursuing officer, Scott, attempted to box in Harris when he drove directly in front of the vehicle’s path. Scott drove in Harris’ path as Reynolds pursued the motorist in the parking lot from behind. Scott’s use of this intervention technique would have not only been prohibited by the Model Policy, but it also put Scott in serious danger.

Alternatively, the Model Policy does not explicitly prohibit a PIT maneuver or spike strips. However, the Policy does require officers to meet the requirements of intervention techniques mentioned above. These requirements include that “the officer has reason to believe that the continued movement of the eluding vehicle would place others in imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury,” “the apparent risk of harm, if the eluding vehicle continues to flee, is so great as to outweigh the apparent risk of harm involved in the forcible stop,” and that the officer “obtains a supervisor’s permission to use intervention tactics.”

The initiation of the pursuit was a violation of the Model Policy. So, too, was Scott’s vehicle intervention maneuver. For example, in determining whether to undertake the PIT maneuver, Scott had to have “reason to believe” that the continued movement of Harris’ vehicle would place others in imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury. Scott could point to the movements Harris was making with his vehicle—swerving in and out of lanes and running red traffic lights—as evidence that Harris posed imminent “threat of death or serious bodily injury.” Thus, this requirement was satisfied. However, Scott could not justify “the apparent risk of harm involved in the forcible stop.” Scott determined that, because the vehicles were traveling at high speeds, he was unable to take the PIT maneuver. Instead, Scott used a prohibited maneuver, ramming the back of Harris’ vehicle, to attempt to stop the car. Although Scott had supervisor approval, a minor traffic violation was not revealed as the reason for the pursuit. For that low of an offense, the “risk of harm” of allowing Harris to flee was not greater than the risk of a PIT maneuver that could end in death.

Why are vehicle pursuit policies important?

The Model Policy does not advocate that officers let violators of the law go free or do as they please. Instead, the Model Policy recognizes that vehicle pursuits ​​present acute risks to officers, motorists, and bystanders alike. The Policy creates guidelines acknowledging that these acute risks are not justified by the potential benefit of apprehending a fleeing individual—except when the individual has committed a violent crime that renders them a persistent danger to the community.

Further, data shows that departments with more restrictive policies engage in fewer vehicle pursuits. Data also shows that more restrictive policies do not necessarily correlate with rising rates of vehicles eluding police. Crafting a vehicle pursuit policy—that restricts officers from engaging in vehicle pursuits only for individuals suspected of violent crimes and who pose a continuing danger to the community—reduces risks without posing more opportunities of fleeing vehicles.

Companies who insure cities and police departments agree that reducing some of the dangers of police vehicle pursuits saves a city’s taxpayers revenue. After cities paid out billions in use of force claims over a decade, insurers began to warn cities they would lose coverage if they did not overhaul their use of force policies—including adopting restrictive vehicle pursuit policies. In one Missouri city, vehicle pursuits and injuries from pursuits dropped dramatically after pressure from an insurance company and after the city banned high-speed pursuits for traffic infractions and minor, nonviolent crimes.

Whether using our Model Policy or similar guidelines, police agencies and communities should work together to form a common understanding of their visions for public safety. These visions should be shaped by information police agencies learn from the most successful police departments across the nation and informed by dialogue with members of communities who are most impacted by policing. While much more is needed to improve public safety, guidelines on vehicle pursuits in a police department’s use of force policy should consider fair, safe, and equitable values, leading practices, and community voices. This is essential to achieving fair, safe, and equitable outcomes.

Disclaimer: The facts cited above were assumed to be true based upon public information, including court decisions, and have not been evaluated for accuracy. The above analysis reflects the opinions of our staff and is intended for educational purposes and policy discussions.