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The High Cost of Police Pursuit


We already know that police pursuits are extremely dangerous to both bystanders and officers, but they’re also extremely expensive.

In Canton v. Harris (1989) the Supreme Court found that, under certain circumstances, inadequate training resulting in injury or death can be the basis for liability under U.S.C. Title 42, S. 1983.  Although that particular case had nothing to do with police pursuit, this broad reading of liability has percolated down. Given the existing state of police pursuit driver training programs–largely unchanged for decades, even as the driving realities in most of America have become more congested and erratic the argument that this training is “inadequate” seems increasingly persuasive to juries.

Today, many state and local cases find officers, departments, or municipalities liable for poor judgment resulting in injury.  While individual officers are often granted qualified immunity for actions taken in the line of duty (provided there’s no evidence of gross disregard for safety or actual intent to do harm), institutions see no such protections.

Tens of Millions Paid Out in Damages Each Year
Nationwide, at least $65 million in jury awarded damages are paid to individuals killed or injured in association with a police pursuit each year (based on estimates derived from AELE law library case studies). A survey of the data found few awards under $400,000, and many in the millions or tens of millions of dollars.

And these figures themselves are just a baseline estimate—only include jury awarded damages. Out-of-court settlements are not consistently reported or disclosed nationwide (even court-awarded damages can be hard to tally nationally, due to differences in state-by-state record keeping).

As an indication of the possible magnitude of out-of-court settlements stemming from deaths and injuries associated with high-speed pursuits, consider Chicago.  Chicago is exceptionally transparent in reporting both litigation and out-of-court settlements stemming from police actions. In a single seven-year period (ending in 2013), Chicago paid out a total of $50 million in settlements.  Over half of that ($28 million) was paid out solely in 2008.  Over the next two years, Chicago paid out another $13 million in settlements—not in total, but for just a single pair of pursuit-related crashes (one of which killed an off-duty Chicago police officer returning to his home).

In other words, a metropolitan area including just under 1 percent of the entire U.S. population spends roughly $9 million dollars each year in out-of-court settlements stemming from deaths and injuries associated with police pursuits. It’s entirely possible that, nationwide, our pursuit policies result in $1 billion each year to help support injured individuals and grieving families.

Limiting the Cost of a Police Pursuit Accident
In some states (such as California), departments can be immune from prosecution over police pursuit-related injuries–provided they have clear police pursuit policies or training programs, and that officers hew to these. Even in states with no such immunity, an advanced, demonstrable effective training program increases the likelihood that a judge will dismiss a case.  Of course, without a doubt: More effective training and improved in-the-moment judgment reduce chases and injuries overall.