Police Pursuits: To Chase or Not to Chase?

We've all seen the videos of high-speed chases involving police, sometimes ending in crashes, and sometimes, deadly.

What leads to some of those chases? How are police trained to handle those tense situations?

From Arizona to Oklahoma, even infamous white Ford Broncos on the LA Freeway, to the big screen and Beverly Hills Cop, police chases have made for compelling TV.

In real life, the costs, at times, have been deadly.

According to federal statistics covering the decade ending in 2015, roughly 350 people died every year across the U.S. in police pursuits resulting in wrecks.

"The last thing we want to do is get in a pursuit. There's just so many recipes for disaster when you get in a pursuit," said Lehigh Township Police Chief Kevin Froese.

Chief Froese and his officers follow a pursuit policy that covers everything from when to chase a suspect and when to call off a pursuit.

"If it's deemed that letting the person go and not pursuing is more of a threat to the general public, then we have a duty to chase them," said the chief.

That includes when a driver fails to stop for an officer.

We now have a better look into the numbers behind police pursuits in Pennsylvania. Police departments are required to report chases to the Pennsylvania State Police.

Since 2015, the number of chases has remained about the same across the state -- about 1,800 a year.

The number of deaths and injuries has stayed about the same as well, never more than 10 deaths in a year, and little more than 200 injuries per year.

In our area, according to the Police Pursuit Reporting System, there were nearly 1,000 pursuits since 2015 with 139 injuries and four deaths. That's less than one percent of the chases in five years.

"It's not every day you see on the news there was a police pursuit in northeastern Pennsylvania, but when you do it's big news," said Chief Froese.

Newswatch 16 has covered police chases over the years, some where police pursuit tactics were used, including blocking in a vehicle and PIT maneuvers. PIT stands for Precision Immobilization Technique and causes the suspect to spin out and ends the chase.

Some chases end in crashes like one in Hazleton.

That high-speed crash at a former hospital in Hazleton back in January was the result of what police say was a near miss involving a pedestrian and that BMW. That driver had been caught and charged. However, according to those who train future police officers, those decisions on whether or not to chase a vehicle that might end up in a crash like this can't be taught, but it does come from each individual police agency on a case-by-case basis.

"We try to get them aware they'll be making decisions quickly and a lot of these decisions have effects that go on forever," said Bob Jolley, an assistant director of the Lackawanna College Police Academy and 40-year veteran of the police force.

The academy gives cadets training on how to drive in pursuit of a fleeing suspect and what legal issues are involved, but it all depends on each police department's policy guidelines helping to decide if they should pursue or not.

"Hopefully, we have them making good ones, if that's what's happening on the part of police and on the part of the public," Jolley said.

And that's where the question remains: when should police or state troopers give chase?

The statistics show that in more than half of the chases over the past two years in Pennsylvania, the reasons they started were because of things like speeding or failing to obey stop signs or yield signs.

State police would not go on camera to discuss its policy, but a spokesperson tells Newswatch 16 safety is top priority when deciding whether to pursue a vehicle. A trooper will pursue a suspect when the risks posed by allowing the suspect to remain at large outweigh the risks of the pursuit.

Bottom line, Chief Froese says an officer can break off a chase because of conditions or a danger to the public, and oftentimes the decisions are made in split seconds.

"The adrenaline, you got to understand, you're going 0-90 in a millisecond, not talking speed, heart rate."

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