Minneapolis police are weighing new guidelines that would limit when and how officers can chase a suspect after a string of high-speed police pursuits that ended in crashes involving injuries and even death.
The debate comes after vehicle pursuits jumped about 25% from 2016 to 2018. Most were over quickly and lacked the headline-grabbing drama of chases in which bystanders were struck and killed by someone fleeing arrest. But many more result in property damage.
“In my opinion, there’s not a large number of crimes, or types of crimes, that warrant pursuing unless there’s some sort of danger to the public,” said Assistant Police Chief Mike Kjos, one of the biggest champions of the proposed change.
Following a series of dangerous pursuits last winter, he fired off an angry e-mail ordering officers to avoid chasing suspects for all but the most serious offenses. Authorities say the number of pursuits has slowed in the first half of 2019 in the wake of Kjos’ order, issued while he was acting inspector on the North Side.
A police chase two years ago totaled Roxxanne O’Brien’s car. Police were pursuing a drug suspect, who crashed into a line of parked cars, including hers, on N. Emerson Avenue.
An officer at the scene asked if she was glad that police made a quick arrest. But in that moment, O’Brien said, she was less concerned about whether police got their man than she was about her 2013 Mitsubishi Gallant.
“I’m shocked that he doesn’t see how I couldn’t see the positive in that moment,” she said.
In a recent interview, Kjos said officers must balance the risks before beginning a pursuit. Officers, he said, can develop tunnel vision during a chase, failing to check for other vehicles and pedestrians, because it’s “in their DNA” to catch and lock up criminals.
“Which then makes it difficult to tell yourself, ‘I need to stop right now,’ ” he said.
Officers in Minneapolis were chasing more suspects than in years past, with the number rising from 128 in 2016 to 160 last year. Nearly half the chases started with a traffic stop, according to a Star Tribune analysis of 465 pursuits from the past three years; another third were for stolen cars. Only 11% of chases during that span began because of a felony-level offense.
Kjos remembers a case earlier in his career when a supervisor overruled his decision to call off a pursuit of an apparently suicidal woman. It ended in the death of a pedestrian — a memory that has always stuck with him, Kjos says.
Without going into specifics, he said the department’s new policy will clarify under what circumstances officers can initiate a pursuit, leaving less up to interpretation.
About 28% of pursuits ended in a crash, a figure that rises to 37% in cases involving auto theft — possibly, experts say, because car thieves may drive more brazenly in a vehicle that isn’t theirs.
Deaths are rare, and injuries occur less than 10% of the time. But they do happen.
Last summer, a man fleeing state troopers crashed into a north Minneapolis playground, severely injuring three children who were playing on the swings.
In May, a 27-year-old man who sped away from police after a suspected drug deal crashed into a sedan driven by Jose Angel Madrid Salcidio, who later died, authorities say.
Last week, a judge sentenced Dayquan Hodge to more than 32 years in prison for stealing a car last September and leading the State Patrol on a chase through south Minneapolis, reaching speeds of up to 105 miles an hour, before broadsiding a pickup truck outside Matt’s Bar and killing three people.
When to pursue?
Officers receive emergency driving training at the police academy, and they must complete eight hours of continuing education every five years, said Nate Gove, director of the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which licenses officers. Even with some departments limiting chases, most still allow officers to try to catch suspects who pose immediate threats to the public, he said.
“There have been a number of serious criminals arrested and taken off the streets after a pursuit, people who have robbed or harmed others, and significantly impaired drivers,” Gove said.
Changing technology has made it easier to track criminals without putting bystanders or officers at risk, experts say. From license plate readers to a relatively new device called StarChase, which allows police to tag fleeing vehicles with adhesive GPS sensors, authorities can monitor a suspect’s movements from a safe distance, they say.
Still, some law enforcement officials worry that limiting chases amounts to giving criminals a free pass.
There is little evidence, however, that banning officers from chasing fleeing suspects would enable and embolden criminals, said Esther Seoanes, executive director of PursuitSAFETY, a national nonprofit that advocates for more restrictive chase policies.
Under existing Minneapolis policy, officers can chase a suspect in a homicide, rape or other violent felony. It says they need to continuously weigh the need and desire for apprehension against the risk to safety.
In most cases, the call over whether to end a chase is left up to a supervisor, but the pursuing officers do have discretion.
Every chase is reviewed for possible policy violations by a department panel; of the 47 internal pursuit-related investigations opened from 2016 to 2018, officers have been disciplined eight times, records show.
Compensation for victims
Soon after the pursuit and crash that left her car totaled, O’Brien got a letter from the city of Minneapolis threatening to auction her car unless she paid the $140 cost of towing it to the impound lot and the $18-a-day storage fees.
O’Brien landed a meeting with City Attorney Susan Segal, who eventually agreed to waive the towing and impound fees, she said.
In a follow up e-mail obtained by the Star Tribune, Segal said city officials were considering creating a compensation fund for people whose homes, cars or property are damaged during a police chase. Segal’s office declined to comment.
Eventually, the city cut O’Brien a check for roughly $4,000, she said — about $1,000 less than what she spent on Lyft rides to and from work, and other related expenses over the months she was without a car.
She said she couldn’t help feeling like she was paying for something that wasn’t her fault.
“It was really a lot on me,” she said.