Pursuits, Use of Force, and the Influence of Public Perceptions on Policing
By Dr. Chuck Russo and Kevin Duffy
Some of us in law enforcement remember when high-speed pursuits were the order of the day. Patrol cars with powerful engines, great tires, and tuned suspensions were a warning to anyone who thought about trying to run from the police. Pursuits that involved police from multiple jurisdictions and covered long distances were fairly common.
Then, something happened.
Crashes that resulted from police pursuits started being featured in the media. News stories would emphasize that the pursuit started over a broken tail light and gloss over the fact that the suspect chose to flee police. Over and over, agencies were raked over the media coals.
Restrictions to Police Pursuits
As a result, police agencies started putting restrictions on pursuits and eventually all-but eliminating them. Today, a cop can only engage in a vehicle pursuit under certain, very limited, circumstances. Officers must know exactly who is being pursued and exactly what they did to break the law.
In reality, police rarely have the level of certainty needed to engage in a pursuit under strict agency policy and procedures. The bad guys know that even if they are driving a stolen car, the police cannot pursue them very fast or very far, so they tend to run—and often get away.
This policy change occurred in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. A generation of police officers have come and gone without knowing about the high-speed pursuit. While they still happen, they are rare.
Changes to Use of Deadly Force
In the mid-1980s, court decisions eliminated the use of deadly force to halt a fleeing felon. Just like the pursuit, police had to change their approach to the use of deadly force when it came to apprehending dangerous people. Up to that time, a felon risked being shot if he or she didn’t heed the call to “stop.”
The U.S. Supreme Court did allow the use of deadly force under certain circumstances, though. If the officer knew—to the level of probable cause—that the offender had committed a crime of violence and that if he or she was not stopped by some means that other people, including the officer, were in danger of being hurt or killed, then the officer could use deadly force to apprehend the suspect.
States passed laws to echo the court decisions in the use of deadly force. Officers were trained and the use of deadly force to simply apprehend a fleeing suspect dropped dramatically. As with pursuits, today’s officers never even consider using deadly force on a fleeing felon except in certain very restrictive circumstances.
[Related Article: Use of Deadly Force on Fleeing Criminals]
In both of these cases, public sentiment drove changes in public policy. Crashes as a result of pursuits led to restrictions on the use of pursuits; injury and death as a result of deadly force policies led to restrictions on the use of deadly force.
Are we at another crossroads now?
Impending Changes to Use of Force
Cellphone cameras populate YouTube with videos of officers making traffic stops, pedestrian stops, and arrests. This has led to an epidemic of the public openly criticizing police actions.
The simple act of taking a drunk or combative suspect into custody generates complaints against police agencies alleging excessive use of force. While officers know that the cellphone videographer is not getting all the facts, the facts matter little in the court of public opinion.
These complaints have accompanied a growing distrust of police officers in general. The events of the past 12 months have shown that the public will question any use of force on suspects. Police officers everywhere are suspected of hunting down citizens just so they can beat them up. This year, the result has been demonstrations, riots, and looting.
Are police agencies going to have to back away from contentious arrest situations? If a suspect puts up resistance, does that mean that police will have to back off and let him or her go free? Officers reading this will say, “No—that will never happen!”
But remember what happened to pursuits? If in 1975 you had told police officers that pursuits would be a thing of the past, those officers would have said, “No—that will never happen!” Well, it did.
Future Restrictions on the Use of Force
Police agencies are going to be forced into a position to scale back the use of force. Laws will be changed to put more restrictions on the use of force when dealing with suspects. The courts will further restrict the use of force by redefining what is “unreasonable” under the Fourth Amendment.
The Supreme Court held in Graham v. Conner that stopping a person and detaining them for investigation would be judged under the “reasonableness” provisions of the Fourth Amendment. What if the court were to redefine what it considers to be reasonable?
As it is now, the police can stop a person if the officer has reasonable suspicion that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense. That detention can include the use of force, i.e. handcuffing, putting hands on the suspect, or otherwise restricting their movement or their ability to flee. Is it possible that the courts—and agencies—could change the level of justification from reasonable suspicion to probable cause?
To most veteran officers, restricting police to certain low levels of force during a “Terry Stop” for investigation is unthinkable. Not allowing officers to put hands on a suspect, restrict their movement, or use other higher levels of force until the officer has probable cause is simply ridiculous.
Just like restricting pursuits and ending the use of deadly force for most fleeing felons, this change may be on our doorstep. How police agencies respond to this new public policy concern in the next 24 months will determine the future of police use of force. More importantly, how individual officers respond in dealing with the public, as well as their suspects, will determine the future pathways.
Change will take a generation of officers to enact, but the public wants action now. Agencies will modify policy, procedure, and training to respond, but will the officers on the street change to meet this challenge?
Time will tell.
About the Authors:
Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, in addition to post-traumatic stress and online learning.
Kevin Duffy is Assistant Chair of Criminal Justice at Daytona State College. He began his law enforcement career in 1972 in Central Florida and was involved in all areas of patrol, training, supervision, support services and special operations before retiring from law enforcement in 2014. Mr. Duffy continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. Through CJ Training, Mr. Duffy provides in service online training solutions to law enforcement agencies.
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