This is the first of several Who is Responsible articles about circumstances that contribute to accidents, injuries & deaths on Colorado roadways. The first involves instances when law enforcement vehicles chase (pursue) other vehicles. Although popular in movies, these situations are a very dangerous reality. We will review a recent Colorado Springs incident, discuss Supreme Court opinion, address police pursuit policy development, and analyze policies at several enforcement agencies here in Colorado.
Five individuals in Colorado Springs remained in the hospital after a driver attempted to elude El Paso County officers. A deputy attempted a traffic stop; however, the man fled, leading officers on a 20-minute pursuit. The driver crashed into a car with three occupants propelling them into a third parked vehicle. The driver faces charges including assault, eluding an officer, and DUI.
U.S. law enforcement is involved in vehicle pursuits every day. Many result in severe property losses, devastating injuries, fatalities, and concern among citizens. Pursuits are defined as efforts by officers to apprehend someone in a vehicle who is actively avoiding them. Four key pursuit elements include:
- The pursuing officer(s) is clearly recognizable as law enforcement (marked vehicle).
- The driver eluding apprehension is doing so consciously.
- The attempted traffic stop initially began as a response to action(s) by the suspect (traffic infraction, criminal act etc.).
- The pursuit is inherently dangerous and likely involves rapid changes in speed, abrupt turning, and potential for collisions.
The Supreme Court addressed considerations that determine liability in pursuits in City of Canton v. Harris. The high court ruled that particularly challenging or dangerous duties that officers encounter require formal training. These are situations where a need for training clearly exists and a failure to do so can result in municipal liability. Agencies must define, implement and train officers in the proper assessment of a situation and procedural conduct.
Agencies implement pursuit policy with various goals including:
- Establishing a firm policy of when to pursue and the process of conducting them;
- Furthering the goal to protect citizens and property;
- Limiting potential injuries; and
- Minimizing local government liability for occurrences during pursuits.
Local law enforcement wishes to apprehend offenders, yet protect officers, other motorists, and bystanders in conducting these risky chases.
Public Perception & Key Decisions
If law enforcement refuses to pursue violators who flee, their credibility suffers and people may be incentivized to elude. Three key decisions include:
- Discretionary: Officers may make decisions at their discretion.
- Restrictive: There are limitations placed on decisions.
- Discouraging: Aside from rare situations, pursuits are generally not initiated.
Local Police Policies in Colorado
The CO Springs Police Department updated their pursuit provisions in 2003. They created a chart or matrix for personnel to reference. Officers in pursuit should continuously reassess whether to proceed based on the seriousness of the offense, and other matrix factors. Field supervisors oversee situations whenever possible and notify a helicopter unit. Once the helicopter unit identifies the suspect, all ground units cease pursuit until the vehicle has stopped.
The Department has a responsibility to apprehend fleeing suspects. Decisions to engage in pursuit are based on circumstances including the seriousness of the crime, whether the identity of the suspect is known, traffic, and others. Sworn officers should pursue when the suspect attempted a violent felony, has a deadly weapon or is dangerous to the public. Decisions to pursue are reversible based on changes in circumstances.
The reason (justification) for pursuing must be based on known facts, not unconfirmed beliefs. Unconfirmed facts may not be used to justify a pursuit later. The Conduct Review Division reviews audio and/or video footage of pursuits and renders a decision if conducted in accordance with policy or if the officer was in violation of policy. A compelling need must exist suggesting a threat of injury or death. Compelling needs do not include simply an act of eluding, DUI, hit & run, property crimes, or other non-violent actions.
Based largely on public outcry, law enforcement is increasingly more reluctant to engage in pursuits. In determining municipal liability, a key factor is whether a written protocol exists if proper training was conducted, and whether protocol was adhered to.
The next segment of the series discusses drivers involved in collisions who chooses to immediately flee, known as a “hit-and-run”.