Police pursuits are inherently dangerous

Early in my career as a public defender, in the 90s, I went on a ride-along in the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct. I was told that no patrol officers were willing to have a public defender in their squad, so a genuinely nice lieutenant drove me to various calls that evening. My most vivid memory was being peripherally involved in a high-speed chase on Lake Street.

The fleeing driver of the car was going west on Lake Street so fast that the names of the intersections he flew through came seconds apart over the radio. The lieutenant drove slowly east on Lake, trying to clear the road of cars and pedestrians. My heart was pounding, knowing the pursuit was coming at us. 

Before getting too close, however, the driver peeled off Lake Street and stopped in someone’s driveway. The lieutenant drove up behind the car, giving me a perfect view from my passenger’s seat, just as multiple cops were about to open the driver’s door. Before I could see what happened, she accelerated away so fast my body lurched back into my seat. We both knew what might happen to the driver.     

Story related: Tragedy strikes again: Darnella Frazier’s uncle latest victim of police chase

After a Minneapolis Police Squad killed Leneal Frazier during high-speed pursuit on July 13, I looked at MPD’s pursuit policy, which is 14 pages long. Based on best practices, it is probably one of the most comprehensive and detailed policies in the country. Although never specifically mentioned, the policy recognizes that adrenaline, and the perceived need not to let the “bad guy” getaway, are both factors that make police pursuits inherently dangerous.     

For instance, the adrenaline-hyped reaction feared by the lieutenant all those years ago would probably be prevented by MPD’s policy today. Several sections specifically direct the officers involved in the primary pursuit not to immediately (or ever) interact with the driver after termination of the pursuit. These provisions recognize that an officer may escalate the situation because of his or her emotions and physiological reactions.

The MPD pursuit policy is quite detailed in that it specifies the types of offenses for which officers can initiate a pursuit. Pursuit may be justified for a “serious and violent felony or gross misdemeanor,” but it goes on to set forth exactly which crimes so there can be no debate (or discretion exercised) about what constitutes a serious and violent felony.

The policy also dictates that officers shall terminate a pursuit once the person’s identity is known, with very few exceptions. This limitation recognizes that it is safer to arrest the person later instead of continuing a risky pursuit.  

MPD policy designates a “pursuit supervisor,” which reflects an additional attempt to limit potential decision-making from the primary officer involved. This is a supervisor not directly involved in the pursuit who monitors the situation and can direct the pursuing officer to terminate at any time.

The hope is that a supervisor not influenced by adrenaline or other factors can more objectively evaluate whether the pursuit has become unsafe. Whether the pursuit has become unsafe is a critical question because MPD’s policy does not end once the pursuit begins. Here is what the policy says:  

  • Officers shall terminate a pursuit in progress if the pursuit poses an unreasonable risk to the officer, the public or the passengers in the car.
  • Officers shall always be aware of the inherent danger to the public and themselves.
  • Officers shall continuously weigh the necessity for apprehension against the risk created for the officers and the general public. 

In other words, even if the pursuit fit the initial criteria, there is an obligation by the primary officer and the pursuit supervisor to continuously assess whether the risk to the public has become too great. 

To understand what happened to Leneal Frazier, I drove from every direction through the intersection where he was killed. On the southeast corner of Lyndale and 41st is a large apartment complex, which makes it difficult to see traffic traveling north on Lyndale.

Frazier’s car was broadsided by the squad, which was traveling at what appears to be a high rate of speed north on Lyndale. We will not know all the facts until the investigation is complete, but I wonder what went through the minds of the primary officer and the pursuit supervisor that led to the conclusion that this pursuit did not pose an unreasonable risk.

At some point, technology will eliminate most police pursuits. There is currently equipment that allows police to attach a GPS device to the fleeing car, although it is costly, and the squad must be close enough for the device to stick. Until that technology evolves, the decision needs to be made whether to remove more discretion from police considering pursuit.

The discretionary decision as to whether the pursuit poses an unreasonable risk is made by human beings, who will perceive the circumstances in different ways. Perhaps it is time to ban pursuits in residential areas, which would have to be carefully defined, with rare exceptions such as pursuit of an active shooter.