This week, the Washington Post editorial board supported strengthening the power of D.C. police (MPD) officers to engage in vehicle chases. The proposal is part of a larger recent crime package proposed by Mayor Muriel Bowser to fight rising violent crime in the District and, in this case, a spate of carjackings. (A preliminary analysis of the full proposal is forthcoming.) The editorial tells the story of Stephanie Traub, a local woman who was carjacked at gunpoint in early October and was immediately able to track her car through the streets of D.C. and into Maryland. MPD officers quickly responded to her call but refused to pursue and engage as a matter of policy. Although the car was eventually ditched and recovered, no suspect had been arrested in the case at the time of publishing.

While the proposal to broaden the circumstances for police chases seems straightforward and common sense, there are several competing interests policymakers need to weigh, making the decision much more difficult than it first appears. In particular, data strongly suggest that the limits on chases increase public safety, but at a cost of letting offenders get away if they try to flee. These competing interests raise serious questions about whether victims and D.C. residents will be better off with a broader policy that resumed chases and whether it would deter future thieves and other offenders. It is altogether likely that what is needed is not an overhaul of the law, but a better understanding and communication of the best policy for officers going forward.

The massive toll of the recent car theft spike

As I wrote over the summer, car thefts are up in many major cities, particularly in cities like D.C. and Baltimore. The District is still on pace to double car thefts from last year, with almost 5,900 automobiles stolen to date. Of those thefts, at least 828 have been carjackings.

While better-off residents often have insurance to pay for damages or replace stolen vehicles, many of the victims are poorer Washingtonians and commuters from Virginia and Maryland who rely on their cars to get to and from work in the District. Frankly, because of the high cost of living, many poorer residents don’t have insurance, or their policies are insufficient enough to cover the costs of replacing a car that is not recovered. Even if the stolen vehicle trend levels off, such a rate of theft is unsustainable and intolerable. 

Of course, the financial costs don’t take into account the trauma of being assaulted or robbed at gunpoint that carjacking victims experience. It’s difficult to imagine the depth of Traub’s frustration and helplessness watching her assailant ride around the area in her car alongside MPD officers who refuse to go get the person who attacked her.

Traub’s carjacking is not unique to the area or, indeed, among the most tragic. As the editorial noted, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D., Texas) was carjacked in Navy Yard just an hour before Traub was. Two teenage girls–one who was 13 at the time of the crime–pleaded guilty to killing a 66-year-old Uber Eats driver while trying to drive away with his car that they stole, also in Navy Yard near Nationals Park. Just this weekend, a 13-year-old boy was shot and killed, allegedly while he and an accomplice were trying to carjack an off-duty federal officer in Northwest D.C.. According to one report, the boy, who was described by his middle-school principal as a gregarious and creative student:

“had been accused in a string of previous carjackings. Two sources familiar with the investigation say [he] was arrested in May in connection with a number of armed carjackings in Southeast D.C. He was 12 at the time. It wasn’t immediately clear what happened with the cases.”

Words fail to convey the layers of tragedy in this story. But if the police remain incapable of stemming these thefts and robberies, more offenders will steal cars and more people will act to protect themselves, leading to more tragedies. 

Police chases kill hundreds every year

The limits on police pursuits did not come out of thin air or as an overreaction to protests of police. One report by USA Today found that 11,506 people died in police pursuits in the United States between 1979 and 2013. Of those, 140 were police officers and 6,301 were fleeing suspects. The remaining 5,066 deaths were innocent bystanders who died as a result of police chases of others. Their data also showed that roughly one-third of chases end in crashes.

A Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) study using more recent data further supports considerable limits on police pursuits:

The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, highlighted NHTSA data that shows fatal crashes involving a police pursuit peaked at 455 in 2020, the highest since at least 2007 when there were 372 fatalities.
[PERF executive director Chuck] Wexler said the data shows that even though there were fewer people driving during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, those on the road were driving more recklessly.

It certainly follows that if a lot of car thieves are as young as 12 and 13 years old, chases dramatically increase the chances of disaster. The ban on police chases is, in itself, a data-supported attempt to improve the safety of the innocent public.

Officers in a catch-22

Before the pandemic and on background, I talked to a handful of MPD officers about chases and how they approach them. Citizens expect them to “do something” about dangerous nuisances like ATVs and dirt bikes running through traffic lights and crosswalks—which brings pressure from politicians and police leadership—but officers can be vilified and prosecuted for their actions if anything goes wrong. As they told me at the time, they don’t have a lot of guidance within the limitations of the general order and no firm sense of support if they took the initiative to, in fact, do something. Two police chiefs later, communication and guidance may have improved, but it’s not terribly likely.

Here is the relevant general order that guides MPD officer behavior in chases. An excerpt:

Vehicle Pursuit Policy
Members shall not engage in a vehicle pursuit of a suspect motor vehicle unless the member actually and reasonably believes:
a. The fleeing suspect has committed or attempted to commit a crime of violence or poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to another person;
b. The vehicle pursuit is immediately necessary to protect another
person, other than the fleeing suspect or suspects, from the threat
of serious bodily injury or death and under the totality of
circumstances not likely to cause death or serious bodily injury to
any person, other than to the fleeing suspect or suspects; and
c. All other options have been exhausted or do not reasonably lend
themselves to the circumstances (e.g., options such as the ability
to safely identify and apprehend suspects without pursuit or the
potential for Air Support Unit tracking in lieu of pursuit).

The general order also lists 12 circumstances that delineate the “totality of circumstances” under which a pursuit may occur or must be terminated. Without proper guidance on what those mean, it makes sense that even in Ms. Traub’s case, an officer would hesitate to engage a suspect who may try to flee. That said, it may be the case that some officers are not engaging in order to build pressure to change the law.

No easy answers

As the PERF report suggests, policymakers should develop best practices for police pursuits. Crafting policy through new legislation may be too blunt of an instrument for the task. While police need some flexibility to deal with circumstances legislation cannot predict, decades of data show that–absent meaningful restrictions–police will instigate chases not justified by the underlying crimes or violations. Chases should be limited to serious crimes–armed carjacking seems among those appropriate–but even then, the guidance must be clear and officers should be confident that they will be protected if they follow protocols.

Police departments can experiment with different ways for dealing with pursuits. Whether it is increasing use of helicopter units, real-time approval of pursuit requests by superior officers on duty, more training on pursuit policies, or some combination of these and other ideas, departments must find ways to protect public safety while apprehending violent offenders and getting them off the street.