High-Speed Police Chases: Texas Is Out of Step

Across the country, law enforcement officials engage in high-speed chases that put innocent bystanders and suspects at risk. A day seldom goes by without at least one report of injury, death or property damage because of high-speed police chases somewhere in the United States. Texas is no exception.

Last summer, a story in USA Today estimated that 5,000 bystanders had been killed as a result of high-speed police chases, and tens of thousands more had been injured between 1979 and 2013. When combined with passengers in cars being chased, this amounts to more than half of people who died in law enforcement chases. The other people who died, about 6,300, were suspects. But what were they suspected of?

Usually, these chases occur when police try to stop a vehicle for minor infractions like speeding or broken taillights. The news story listed just a few of the people killed as a result of such chases:

  • A 25-year-old New Jersey man chased and killed after running a red light
  • A grandmother killed in Indianapolis by a driver police were chasing on suspicion of shoplifting
  • A federal worker killed by a driver being chased in Washington, D.C., because his headlights were off

It appears that most of the dead and injured were either passengers in vehicles being chased or people in the wrong place at the wrong time. In contrast to the more than 5,000 bystanders and passengers killed, 139 officers have died during the same period, 1979 to 2013. According to a story in the Detroit Free Press in June 2015, high-speed chases have the following outcomes:

  • Property damage in one out of fivechases
  • Injuries in one out of seven
  • Fatalities in one out of 35

Although many police departments have rules or guidelines about chasing suspects, officers appear to flout the rules often. And just as many departments allow officers to make their own decisions about when suspects should be chased.

All of these numbers, which come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), are probably low, according to the article. Some states do not report that a suspect died as a result of a police chase when sending numbers to the NHTSA, making the state records more inaccurate than the federal records. The low numbers are also the probable result of state reporting agencies not distinguishing between someone whose car was hit during a chase and someone who was being chased.

Does the national picture reflect the situation in Texas? Around 900 vehicles are involved in high-speed chases each year in Texas, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Last week, a West Houston police car mounted the curb and then became stuck in a muddy field while chasing a suspect. While the only damage appeared to have been to the police vehicle, it could easily have ended differently. For example, police in Mission, Texas, chased a stolen pickup truck in 2013 with deadly results. The truck slammed into several cars, killing a mother, father and four of their children. People in other vehicles were taken to local hospitals because of their injuries. A 2012 ABC News story described the miraculous story of a 2-year-old toddler who lived after being thrown from the window of a speeding SUV being chased in Lubbock.

Because it is a big state, it is not surprising that Texas has the second-highest number of police chase deaths in the United States. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Some cities have outlawed high-speed chases altogether. Other law enforcement departments have restricted chases to those involving known felons. Others expressly prohibit chases for traffic violations.

In contrast, Texas does not distinguish between major and minor offenses when it comes to police chases. Also, police in Texas are much less likely to call off a chase once begun. Nationwide, police call off a chase 9 percent of the time. In Texas, the number is only 3 percent. Finally, Texas officers are allowed to shoot at fleeing vehicles. When the state will become more in sync with the rest of the country remains to be seen.