A San Diego police officer chasing a speeding motorcycle in Mira Mesa on Wednesday afternoon reached speeds of about 75 m.p.h. before he halted the pursuit because he felt it was too dangerous.
His restraint was a sharp contrast to four other chases in the past 12 days, three of which ended in deaths and one in injury.
The deaths of Donna Lovett and Ronald Stone, in particular, serve as tragic reminders of the dangers of high-speed police pursuits. Neither was the object of the chase. Each entered a busy intersection on a green light into the path of a police pursuit. Lovett was killed in a collision with a California Highway Patrol officer and Stone's car was hit by two fleeing purse-snatching suspects.
A decision to pursue is not simple, and the individual police departments will have to judge whether the officers involved made the right calls. But these three deaths emphatically underscore the need for restraint and dispassionate supervision in situations where the adrenaline of competition pushes an officer to chase a suspect onto dangerously crowded streets and through red lights.
The tragedies also may heat up the debate for funds to provide the San Diego Police Department with helicopters, which authorities say can reduce the dangers of pursuits. The department has two confiscated helicopters but lacks the funds to outfit them. To be a truly effective alternative to high-speed pursuits, however, the helicopters need to be airborne and to have them airborne all or most of the day is very expensive. At best, it will be years before the city will have sufficient helicopters to significantly diminish the need for high-speed pursuits and will never eliminate them.
The primary responsibility will always fall to the judgment of the officers and their supervisors. As the San Diego Police Department guidelines state:
" . . . Law violators (should) be apprehended whenever it is feasible . . . It is not expected, however, that a person be pursued to the point where the life of the officer, the violator or others is placed in jeopardy. A high-speed pursuit exposes the officer, the fleeing violator, pedestrians, drivers and passengers of other motor vehicles to the possibility of death or serious injury . . . .
"After a pursuit is undertaken, officers should be prepared to discontinue the pursuit if it becomes unreasonable under the circumstances to continue the chase. When engaged in a pursuit, and when deciding whether the pursuit should be continued, officers should weigh the seriousness of the violator's suspected crime against the potential for death or injury if the chase is continued. . . .
"When a pursuit begins, . . . the nearest supervisor . . . (will) monitor and order termination of the pursuit if it becomes unreasonable . . . .
"Officers should not assume that all persons who flee from the police and refuse to yield are felons. Experience has shown that most pursuits involve misdemeanor violations only. Officers should also be aware that in the heat of a chase, the violator frequently refuses to give up and the officer likewise feels an obligation to succeed in the pursuit. This psychological phenomenon can cloud an officer's judgment and may cause the officer to continue a chase beyond the point where common sense and good judgment would require the pursuit to be terminated."
We could hardly say it better.