Police chases, as exciting as they are in movies, can result in accidents — sometimes fatal ones. The victims can be the perpetrator, an officer, or innocents. According to a report released May 9 by the U.S. Department of Justice, the 68,000 vehicle pursuits by state and local law enforcement agencies conducted in 2012 resulted in 351 fatalities.
The death rate in 2012 from such pursuits is in line with the historical average. The DOJ recorded more than 7,000 fatalities over the 20 years of data reviewed, an average of 355 deaths per year, or just about one death per day. The number of fatalities peaked at more than 400 annual fatalities in 2006 and 2007.
> Pursuit-related deaths per 100K: 2.1
> Pursuit-related deaths (1996-2015): 267 (7th highest)
> Violent crimes per 100K (2015): 315.1 (22nd lowest)
> Bystander deaths (1996-2015): 69 (12th highest)
Police chases appear more dangerous in some states than in others. Police pursuits are the most deadly in Alabama, where the police chase-related fatality rate of 5.3 deaths per 100,000 people is highest of all states. In Hawaii, there has only been five deaths related to police chases in the last 20 years, or 0.4 per 100,000 people annually, each the lowest such figure nationwide.
Most agencies have adopted vehicle pursuit policies. In such cases, specific criteria like speed, type of offense, and surrounding conditions help officers determine when a pursuit is permissible. Such policies, as well as their content, significantly affect the likelihood of fatal accidents.
All state police and highway patrol agencies and 97% of local police departments have a written pursuit policy.
Police chases are relatively more common in smaller police departments serving fewer than 10,000 residents. In these jurisdictions, 4% of local police departments and 10% of sheriff’s offices do not have a written policy.
In general, the rate of vehicle pursuits — and the likelihood of fatal accidents — is highest in departments that leave pursuit decisions to officer discretion.
The DOJ does not report the justifications for each pursuit. However, violent crime levels tend to be higher in states with more fatal police chases. In 16 of the 25 states with the highest rates of pursuit-related fatalities the violent crime rates exceed the national rate of 372.6 incidents per 100,000 people.
Victims of fatal pursuit-related vehicle accidents include police officers, occupants of the chased vehicle, occupants of other vehicles, and pedestrians. Occupants of the vehicles being pursued are the most likely to die in police chases. One-third of deaths in fatal police chase accidents are innocent bystanders not related to the pursuit.