Roll Call. Police pursuit. Enforcing the law is important, but safeguarding lives is paramount

Undoubtedly, you have noticed a significant increase in police pursuits in Illinois over the past six months. This is particularly true in DuPage County, where a shift in policy allows pursuit of people who commit crimes including retail theft, home invasion, robbery and the traffic offense of fleeing and eluding police.

As defined under Illinois police guidelines, a pursuit is “an active attempt by a police officer in an authorized emergency vehicle to apprehend a suspected law violator who is attempting to avoid apprehension through evasive tactics.”

While pursuit policies may vary from department to department, there are certain parameters that are shared by agencies statewide. In Illinois, police officers are allowed to chase for forcible felonies such as home invasion, carjacking, armed robbery or shooting cases. Some agencies eliminate the “forcible” descriptor from their pursuit policies, allowing pursuit for felonies in general. Most agencies do not allow police officers to pursue vehicles for traffic offenses alone.

There are typically three types of pursuits: one in which the offender never stops; one in which the offender pulls over, but flees as the officer exits his car; and one in which an attempt is made to stop a traffic violator who also has committed crimes yet unknown to officers.

As is frequently the case, offenders flee because they have a suspended or revoked driver’s license, have an active warrant or are intoxicated. With recent public statements and news conferences held throughout Cook County by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office regarding the prosecution of criminal cases, offenders learn that police cannot chase them in some jurisdictions, thus increasing the number of individuals that flee from police.

Unfortunately, fleeing from police in traffic is becoming a standard, almost everyday occurrence. The decision of whether to pursue can have significant consequences for all those involved and should not be made impulsively without due consideration.

Enforcing the law is important, but no less important is the safeguarding of lives in the process.

In Illinois, officers must file a pursuit report with the Illinois Police Training and Standards Board. The report must be filed after a pursuit, whether or not an apprehension is made. I do not believe police agencies widely do this. The latest Illinois Law Enforcement Training Standards Board analysis was a 2021 report that noted only 866 pursuits throughout the state. I have serious doubts as to its accuracy.

Concerns regarding police pursuits are real and relevant to both the communities and the law enforcement officers who serve them. Wherein lies the problem with police pursuits? For context’s sake, let’s start with the primary reason police officers pursue in the first place. Because of the nature of their job and their commitment to law and order, when police officers see a violation happen, their first impulse is to catch the offender. A chase ensues. If the offender does not stop, the officers often develop tunnel vision. Determined to make the stop or force the driver to pull over, excessive speeds are used, creating dangerous conditions that can lead to catastrophic outcomes.

That being said, I believe the exacerbation of the pursuit problem is threefold: a lack of clear policy, inconsistent enforcement and insufficient follow-up. Having a clear, proper pursuit policy in place, an authorized supervisor to monitor the pursuit and adhering to reporting and accountability procedures are essential elements for responsible and effective police pursuits.

An external factor that plays an important role in driving good police policies is the issue of liability. Any number of lawsuits can emerge from a chase gone wrong, providing a strong impetus for needed change.

In a police pursuit, multiple parties can be at fault and held liable including the fleeing suspect, the police officers involved and the government agency that employs them. For officers involved in police chases, liability is determined on a case-by-case basis. In general, law enforcement officers are not responsible for injuries that occur to a third party if those injuries occur while they are performing their duties. However, police officers can be held liable in Illinois if it can be proved that the officer was acting intentionally, willfully wanton, negligently or recklessly, and the officer showed utter indifference to the conscious disregard of the safety of others. In any event, every officer contemplating a pursuit must weigh the risk of the loss of human life and/or property against the benefits of capturing the suspect.

Regrettably, pursuit policies in one county can have an adverse effect on adjoining counties. Such is the case between Cook County and those surrounding it where frustration is mounting over what is perceived as leniency, publicized as “criminal justice reform,” in the Cook County criminal justice system. Suburbs, such as DuPage County, that have shopping malls or entertainment districts are getting sick and tired of being “ripped off” when offenders flee across county lines, often aware that police officers there are prohibited from even attempting to make a stop.

Regarding pursuits in general, it is worth noting that officers get basic training in pursuit driving at the police academy and there are schools that most departments send their officers to for in-service training throughout their career – a definite must. Police pursuits are a matter of police policy and following the law. Even when allowed, such as for forcible felonies, the officer must be willing to give up pursuit early if policy is being violated, conditions are getting out of hand or danger is posed to the public. Many innocent people have been killed or injured by vehicles involved in a chase.

At this juncture, I want to make clear that there certainly are cases in which police pursuit, such as that of highly violent offenders, is necessary. However, in my opinion, pursuits stemming from traffic offenses alone are unacceptable. There was a recent case in DuPage County in which an agency chased an offender who was fleeing police at a reported 132 mph. The offender was caught, but ended up being charged with only felony traffic offenses, including the felony of fleeing and eluding police.

No police agency should be chasing anyone at 132 mph unless it is known for a fact they have committed a highly violent criminal act. Even then, numerous factors must be considered and weighed, such as the time of day, weather conditions, the location of the pursuit – residential neighborhoods, highways, near schools, through commercial districts and public safety. In considering a pursuit, the officer must take all these factors into account and make a split-second decision. Once a pursuit is initiated, it should be constantly monitored by a supervisor who has the authority to call off the pursuit at any time, for any reason – a standard practice in every police agency.

Personally, I also take issue with the use of stop sticks. During a chase, officers throw the spiked devices into the roadway to blow the tires on a car to force it to stop. These devices were designed for use on major highways and I do not believe they are effective in municipal policing. Over the past several years, several police officers have been injured or killed deploying stop sticks, resulting in being hit by the offending vehicle. There is neither uniform national training nor standards for deploying stop stick devices. Until this changes, I think that their use should be eliminated.

Fortunately, several new devices that minimize the need for a chase are coming out to help police during pursuits. One type of device fires a dart from the front of a squad car, hitting the targeted vehicle’s rear end and depositing a GPS tracker, allowing officers to follow the car without pursuing it. Machines also have been developed that give police officers the ability to remotely shut off the engine of the vehicle they are seeking. Although a bit controversial, this technology is available and will be closely scrutinized in future years.

Police pursuits of any kind always will have variables with which to contend. I strongly believe that if you cannot safely capture the offender, ensure the public’s safety and protect the officers involved in the pursuit, a chase should not be undertaken.

• Tom Weitzel was chief of the Riverside Police Department. Follow him @chiefweitzel.