It happens all the time in the movies and on TV, and not even the bad guys get hurt.
The Dukes of Hazzard did it every week. Most good action shows feature at least one. Even Disney's "Escape From Witch Mountain" featured a car chase up and around mountainous roads and no one got hurt.The faster and more dangerous, the more fun. There are even TV specials showcasing the crashes that result from police pursuits. Fox TV is advertising a special called "When Cars Attack," with footage of spectacular car crashes, including police chases.
When we're jumping in our seats cheering for more, we rarely think about real-life consequences.
In real life, car chases hurt and kill people. More sobering is that often those who are most seriously affected by pursuits aren't even those involved.
To chase or not to chase.
Sounds simple. Like choosing whether or not to pull someone over for failing to use a signal or deciding who deserves a ticket and who deserves a warning.
But it's one of the toughest questions an officer faces. Like the decision to use deadly force, it's a question an officer must answer in seconds and can have life-altering consequences.
On one hand, it's against the law to run from police, so if it happens, officers should chase and then arrest the law breakers, right?
Consider the other hand. Pursuits are dangerous, and if they don't end in an accident, they can cause serious collisions along the way. In 1996, two teens driving a stolen car were killed when Salt Lake County sheriff's deputies chased them.
Three high-profile car chases in the past two months in Salt Lake County have ended in shootings. Two of those who ran from police were killed by police bullets once the chases ended.
With some regularity, it seems a debate about the wisdom and necessity of police pursuits finds its way into the spotlight.
"(Pursuits) kind of go in spurts," said Orem Police Lt. Bob Conner.
Not all agencies keep statistics on how many pursuits their officers are involved in and not all of them do it the same way. But according to the numbers available from most of Salt Lake County's police departments, the number of chases did go up in 1997 (see accompanying box).
The recent number of high-profile pursuits has pushed the questions to the forefront again.
Should the police chase those who refuse to stop? If lines are drawn about when and whom police should pursue, where should they be? Is the arrest of any suspect worth the life of an innocent bystander?
Salt Lake County Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Jim Potter said he thinks more people are running from police for a number of different reasons. One of those reasons, he said, is the perception that if the chase ends badly, it's the fault of police.
"The removal of blame from the criminal to the police is a real problem," he said. "It definitely sends a message to the criminal element."
Potter said those who run from police are rarely held accountable for tragedies caused by chases that wouldn't happen if the person obeyed police.
"Everybody but the criminal is held responsible for these pursuits. . . . We've created worse problems for ourselves because we're not placing the burden on the criminal," he said.
Evading or failure to obey a police officer's command, which can be a third degree felony, is often dropped in plea agreements because usually more than one crime is committed by those who run from officers, Potter said.
"I think it warrants some discussion and research," he said.
Other police representatives seem to echo his sentiment that it's a crime that seems to get lost in the shuffle. Because there is no uniform way of reporting pursuits, and many departments either don't keep statistics or keep incomplete numbers, it is difficult to know how many of those who run are actually charged with that crime.
However, the number of those charged with running from police has gone up steadily for the past three years. According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, 338 people were charged throughout the state with felony fleeing in 1995.
In 1996, that number increased to 365 and then to 406 in 1997.
But it's not the number of chases that seem to spark the debate on pursuits, it's specific instances, such as the recent shooting death of a 17-year-old girl who was fleeing from police (see related story). In Utah, as in other states, deaths of innocent people and sometimes those being pursued has shaped the debates and even the policies.
The most drastic changes to local chase policies came in Salt Lake City in 1991 after James Pratt was killed in a pursuit in May of that year. Pratt and another man were hit by a man police attempted to stop for expired registration.
Following that accident, the department held a series of public hearings that polarized residents but were sparsely attended. The end result was a policy that severely restricts - and almost completely eliminates - the reasons Salt Lake police officers can chase a person who refuses to stop.
Lt. Phil Kirk said the only reason police can pursue someone who refuses to stop is "when there is a necessity for immediate arrest."
"It's a sort of balancing thing," he said. "The gravity of the offense vs. the potential danger that the pursuit poses to the public."
Kirk defends the city's policy, which many officers criticize, as the best guideline for a densely populated area. Salt Lake City's policy is the state's most restrictive while Salt Lake County and the Utah Highway Patrol have the most liberal policies, which basically leave the decision up to the officer trying to stop someone.
Supervisors have the authority in every case to terminate the pursuits, and most departments limit the number of cars that can be involved in a chase.
Most police agencies allow pursuits under certain circumstances, but most often what it boils down to is whether the chase will endanger the officer or other motorists.
"Whenever the danger of pursuing exceeds the danger of letting the suspect go, we'll stop the pursuit," said Springville Lt. David Caron.
All police agencies have a policy governing pursuits, and most have boards or a process that looks at all pursuits. The Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office only reviews those that end in accidents.
What complicates understanding the rules of police pursuits is the fact that any police agency can pursue a suspect into any city.
Suspects who flee
- 338 people were charged with felony fleeing.
- 60 pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
- 49 cases were dismissed.
- 365 people were charged with felony fleeing.
- 85 pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
- 59 cases were dismissed.
- 406 people were charged with felony fleeing.
- 72 pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
- 59 cases were dismissed.
Source: Administrative Office of the Courts.
The number of pursuits in each jurisdiction in Salt Lake County for the past three years:
Utah Highway Patrol (statewide)
Salt Lake City
1995 - 14
1996 - 3
1997 - 15
Salt Lake County Sheriff (Sheriff's numbers only include pursuits involving collisions with property damage or injury)
1995 - 15
1996 - 13
1997 - 27
South Salt Lake
1995 - 8
1996 - 9
1997 - 11
1995 - 10
1996 - 8
1997 - 12
1996 - 14
1997 - 13
1995 - 55
1996 - 51
1997 - 76
1997 - 10
*Note: Not all police agencies in Salt Lake County had these numbers available in the same form for the same time frames. The comparisons are as close and as complete as possible.