Police vehicle chases end in crashes two-thirds of the time, according to hacked emails

On April 13, a police chase ended with a crash in West Town that injured seven people. Image: CBS Chicago
On April 13, a police chase ended with a crash in West Town that injured seven people. Image: CBS Chicago

In March, Streetsblog Chicago took a look at police vehicle chases and the Chicago Police Department’s policy that asks officers to apply an in-the-moment, mental “balancing test” to weigh the necessity of immediately apprehending a suspect against the inherent danger of motor vehicle pursuit. A trove of recently hacked City Hall emails further illustrated the extreme danger and high cost of police vehicle chases.

On May 12, the Chicago Sun-Times’ David Struett reported that, according to a confidential report made public by the hack, two-thirds police chases in 2019 – 180 of 270 total – ended in crashes, and in eight cases people died. According to the article, 112 of the 270 chases were ordered terminated, yet over half of those still ended in crashes, and one resulted in the death of a bystander. A tragic example is the death of Guadalupe Francisco-Martinez, a 37-year-old mother of six who was struck in her vehicle last June by a police officer engaged in a high-speed pursuit across the city, which happened after the officers engaged in the chase had been told to stop the pursuit at least four times.

According to the Sun-Times article, an email from Mayor Lori Lightfoot to police superintendent David Brown last April stated that litigation costs for the city related to police crashes has amounted to almost 50 million dollars over the last five years. The email indicated the mayor had been paying close attention to police vehicle chases for some time, yet the police pursuit policy wasn’t revised until after Francisco-Martinez’s death.

Since the publication of the Streetsblog story, on Saturday, April 10, another police chase in West Town ended in a crash and injuries to seven people: the fleeing driver and his four passengers, two of whom were minors, plus two bystanders in another car.

In the March story, I cited a set of recommendations from the National Institute of Justice on high-speed police pursuits, issued over 30 years ago. That policy recommendation states that “high-speed vehicle pursuits are possibly the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities,” and that for anyone other than a violent felon, the balance weighs against the high-speed chase. With two out of three Chicago police chases ending in a crash, this proves every bit as true in 2021 as it was in 1990.

The NIJ recommended the use of cameras to identify and apprehend suspects at a later time. So again, it’s worth posing the question: in an age of traffic cameras, satellite images, and police body cams, are police vehicle chases necessary? In what circumstances does any immediate danger the suspect presents to the public outweigh the potential for endangering officers, suspects, and innocent bystanders? Particularly when the odds are the chase will end in a crash 66 percent of the time?

Read the Sun-Times coverage here.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG