Are police chases worthwhile in curbing crime or too dangerous for all involved?

Different viewpoints in cities across US

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DENVER – While police chases have become somewhat of a public spectacle since the infamous O.J. Simpson pursuit, there are differences of opinion both in police circles and among Americans as to whether they are either safe or effective.

Recent pursuits involving a tractor in downtown Denver and a Las Vegas officer who shot through his windshield while chasing a suspect have put the question back into public discussion.

Some say police shouldn’t let criminals get away simply by fleeing because they’ll learn that they can get away with it. But others say that the pursuits are too dangerous for all the people who aren’t involved and say they could cost lives.

Joe Gamaldi, the president of the union the represents the Houston Police Department’s officers, said that the department can chase suspects “for anything and everything.”

“If someone runs from the police, our officers are authorized to chase that person if it just starts out as a traffic violation,” he told Denver7. “They could have just been involved in a crime. They could have just robbed a bank. And sometimes we make unbelievable arrests simply that started as a traffic stop where someone ran.”

But he acknowledges that there is an “inherent risk” with the pursuits. A 19-year-old driver who was fleeing police killed a person earlier this year. Supervisors are allowed to call off chases if they enter school zones or rush hour traffic—places that are more likely to have a higher volume of people.

But Gamaldi says he thinks the Houston police policy is the right way to handle pursuits.

“Honestly I think any city, any municipality that does a no-chase policy is basically inciting lawlessness into the community because – make no mistake, the criminals will know that if they run from the police, they’re not going to be chased,” he said.

But in Denver, the police department pumps its breaks at the thought of many pursuits. Its policy says officers aren’t allowed to chase for traffic violations, DUIs and most hit-and-runs if someone isn’t injured. Officers are never to drive into oncoming traffic.

DPD says the pursuits are often too dangerous for other people in public and even for the officers involved.

If a suspect has killed or severely harmed someone, then police in Denver are allowed to chase.

“We have to weigh the safety of the public against the need to apprehend an offender right here, right now,” said Denver Police Sgt. Mike Farr. “What we’re talking about is when human life has been expended or human life is in danger. That’s when an officer can make a decision to pursue the offender.”

However, the president of the union representing DPD’s rank and file officers says he understands both viewpoints and knows it’s tough to let criminals go even when it’s the right thing to do. He noted that he had five vehicles flee from him in a 30-minute period in a recent week inside one of the city’s higher-crime areas.

And the data behind pursuits in Denver shows the change: There were only 133 vehicles that weren't pursued by Denver police officers in 2010, while that number shot up to 889 last year.

“Bad guys know Denver has a policy that says, ‘I’m not going to chase everything that just simply goes,’” Sgt. Farr said. “But what they should also know is an officer – before he has turned on lights to ask you to pull over – has obtained a license plate number and has obtained a description of your vehicle.”

And the department does have a helicopter in the sky many hours each day. If people flee in vehicles and those vehicles are found, they can be impounded by the department.

Beyond the officers and innocent bystanders, Denver-based civil rights attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai says the policies also need to account for the criminals who are running. He thinks that officers should never chase someone over a misdemeanor crime.

He recently sued the Rawlins (Wyo.) Police Department over an incident in which a Fort Collins man fled officers because he had a misdemeanor warrant for failing to appear. He died in a police shooting after the pursuit.

“Law enforcement generally have a very hard time letting the bad guy go,” he said. “We as a community have to make a choice of lesser evils here.”

Several drivers who had been in police pursuits and who spoke with our news partner KTRK-TV in Houston, said they regretted the decision. Christian Vilasquez ended up crashing and seeing his friend ejected from the vehicle.

Another woman said she blanked once her pursuit began and didn’t know what to do.

“I prayed to God: God, take the wheel,” she said.

Most of the Denver metro area police chases reviewed by Denver7 were limited only to dangerous suspects and required a supervisor’s prior authorization. Their goal is to keep them brief by using PIT maneuvers or stop sticks.

But they don’t always work, which is why some police officers’ opinions fall somewhere in the middle by trying to pursue early on and ending the chases if they’re ineffective. The goal is to keep people from fleeing in the first place, but if they do, it’s currently just a matter of policy as to what happens next.

And Gamaldi says that the onus remains on the criminals thinking about fleeing police in the first place.

“It’s always important to remember there is one person in that chase that can determine how and when that ends, and that is the suspect,” he said.

Denver7's Blair Miller contributed to this report.

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