February 18, 2019 10:20 PM
Police officers across Minnesota are forced to make a judgment call while behind the wheel on whether to engage in high-speed chases that could potentially jeopardize innocent lives.
Nearly 200 agencies leave those high-risk decisions up to officer discretion, according to a 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS analysis of pursuit policies.
A national expert on police chases says those findings show departments are putting officers at a disadvantage by asking them to make risky decisions on the fly.
"You are putting that officer in a horrible position," said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina, who has studied police chases for 30 years. "How fair is that to the officer?"
Alpert says such policies put officers and the public at risk.
Since last summer, nine innocent people have been injured or killed in the Twin Cities in the middle of police chases or moments after they were terminated.
"The person who flees from police should be punished… but not at the cost of my family's life," Alpert said.
Yet, high-speed chases are up 170 percent in Minnesota since 2010, according to the Department of Public Safety.
A previous 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation last fall found the overwhelming majority of such chases start because of minor traffic violations like speeding or broken taillights.
A 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS INVESTIGATION found officers have chased drivers at dangerous speeds for minor traffic violations such as a broken tail light or a petty crime like shoplifting. View the original report below:
The review of pursuit policies show 27 departments – less than 15 percent – have banned chases over such violations. Those departments only allow officers to chase violent offenders suspected of committing crimes like armed robbery, assault or murder.
"We want to make things better, not worse," said Chief Eric Gieseke with the Burnsville Police Department. His department banned chases nearly 30 years ago.
Gieseke says he wants his officers to ask themselves one question when making that decision: Is the chase worth dying for?
"Having a restrictive policy actually helps the officer because it gives them clear guidelines," he said. "They're not stuck in the middle of a very difficult decision making process during a rapidly evolving situation. It's clear."
In other departments, officers are expected to assess a variety of factors in a matter of seconds including traffic, weather, and the ability to arrest the suspect later.
"We want to make sure we're not putting the public in harm's way, unnecessarily," Gieseke said. "We also want to protect the officers and give them the opportunity to go home safe at the end of the night."
A recent national study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice suggests that restrictive pursuit policies, like the one in Burnsville, are becoming more common throughout the country. However, the data does not show how restrictive.
"I think you're the first group that has really looked at a large number of policies and has determined what's restrictive and what's not," said Alpert. "I would like to see this done in every state. I think the country needs to look at it. We need to know what our police are doing."
'Should have been called off a long time ago'
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS started analyzing police chases after a suspect chased by a state trooper for driving over the speed limit crashed into a Minneapolis playground. Three children were seriously injured in the crash.
Dash-camera video later released by the state patrol showed the trooper regretted that chase.
"Should have been called off a long time ago," he said in the recording.
The agency is now reviewing its policy. However, when asked in December whether that chase was reasonable, Col. Matt Langer defended the troopers' decisions.
"Our pursuit policy affords troopers the discretion in making those decisions and they're trained on both the skill of driving fast and the decision making required," Langer said. "Ultimately, it's a subjective test."
Gieseke, the police chief in Burnsville, says changing such policies is not always a popular decision.
"It wasn't well received by a lot of officers, quite frankly," Gieseke said. "There was a perception that everybody would come to Burnsville to commit crimes or all the bad men and women would get away, but that hasn't been the case. The data doesn't support that."
Updated: February 18, 2019 10:20 PM
Created: February 18, 2019 09:21 AM
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