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What should the public think about high-speed police pursuits?

The above-posed headline question might strike some readers -- and reasonably so -- as being blatantly open-ended and even impossible to answer in any definitive way.

After all, there is no universally agreed public view on any matter, much less one that concerns a police-related topic.

The bottom line: Some people might think that high-speed chases are a sound enforcement strategy, since drivers fleeing from police officers at a high rate of speed must uniformly be dangerous individuals. Other people might hold a contrary view, objecting to the strategy on grounds that it entails troublesome safety implications for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and others who are in close proximity to a chase yet not involved in it.

Does empirical evidence exist that might reasonably incline a person to think one way or the other on this topic?

Interestingly, a recent and lengthy media expose on high-speed police chases provides some data that are certainly notable and directly relevant to that question.

Moreover, the information is California-specific and comes from official state records. Here are a few interesting takeaways from data relating to high-speed chases that occurred from 2002 through 2014 in the state:

  • Of 63,500 such chases, nearly 90 percent were for offenses relating to vehicle infractions, with only about one in 20 pursuits being "an attempt to nab someone suspected of a violent crime"
  • Many hundreds of chases were focused upon drivers who were only endangering themselves (e.g., motorcyclists not wearing a helmet and drivers of passenger vehicles not wearing safety belts)

Reportedly, state highway patrol chases over a recent eight-year period resulted in more than 4,000 crashes and over 100 deaths.

Technologies that could help police departments stifle their urge to rapidly pursue some motorists have reportedly been developed. They include the use of microwave transmissions to shut off car engines and tracking technology that can be shot at and affixed to a fleeing car.

Some readers might be inclined to think about such alternatives to high-speed pursuits the next time they see one unfolding on the television or are actually in close proximity to a speeding vehicle followed by multiple police cars.

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