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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 November 2007, 23:57 GMT
Rights and wrongs of police chases
By Helen West
BBC Inside Out London

A police car
Police often have to engage in a high speed pursuit of suspects
Police guidelines for high speed chases are currently under review, with some believing Britain could learn from the US where many forces operate under strict rules on when to give chase.

Around 40 people a year are killed in high speed police chases, and usually the victims of police chases are those in the cars being pursued.

But sometimes it is a totally innocent person who simply finds themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In April, 26-year-old lawyer Natalie Forde was killed while travelling home in a taxi. A speeding BMW smashed into the side of her vehicle killing both her, the driver and seriously injuring her boyfriend Simon.

The police had been pursuing the BMW after observing a fight break out outside a wedding venue in Tottenham.

A pursuit is always, always a compromise between speed and safety
Kevin Delaney

The chase that ensued saw the BMW driving at speeds of up to 90mph through residential areas in north London - at times on the wrong side of the road.

The BMW ran a number of red lights before eventually crashing with Natalie's taxi.

Her mother Teresa believes that it is time the police reviewed the use of high speed chases.

"Clearly situations occur where it's necessary to pursue criminals, however this should literally be only life and death situations.

"As a mother I don't want any other family to go through with the nightmare of losing a loved one in such a senseless way."

Current police guidelines suggest limits on when the police give chase. But they are only advisory, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission wants them made compulsory.

One recent report concluded the likelihood of pursued cars voluntarily stopping was around one in seven, while chases are twice as likely to end in an accident as in the successful use of tactics.

While the police are trained, the suspects they are chasing are not. Frequently they are disqualified, uninsured and inexperienced drivers.

"A pursuit is always, always a compromise between speed and safety," says the former head of the Metropolitan Police Traffic Division Kevin Delaney.

"I am afraid to say that luck plays a very great part in the outcome. And luck is something that the police driver has absolutely no control over whatsoever."

However, senior figures within the police force argue that they have got to strike a difficult balance between public safety and fighting crime.

Natalie Forde
Natalie Forde died after a car being chased by police hit her taxi

"The people who want to commit serious crime don't respect traffic laws," says the Metropolitan Police Commander of Roads and Policing Commander Shabir Hussain.

"It goes hand in hand. Why would someone comply with one set of rules and not another set of rules? The person going through a red light isn't just going through a red light.

"They may be a murderer, they may be a kidnapper, or they may be a rapist, and are we simply going to let them go?"

But would crime detection really suffer if police chases were restricted to serious crimes only?

Shawn Dunlap is a seasoned veteran in the Orlando Police Department in the United States, who like any dedicated cop is keen to get the bad guys. But one thing he can't do is chase anyone he feels like.

He can only engage in a pursuit if he has evidence that an extremely serious offence has been committed. Just in case he forgets, the 11 serious offences he is allowed to pursue a suspect for are taped to his dashboard.

They include murder, armed robbery, rape, arson and kidnap - crimes where a life is in danger.

"A couple of weeks ago I tried to stop a car for a traffic infraction," says Dunlap.

"The vehicle turned all of its lights off and just ran from me. At the time it always makes me angry - it always does, but when the adrenaline is finished dumping and my heart rate comes back down, I realise that it was the best thing for everybody to let that person go.

Shawn Dunlap
Shawn Dunlap will often let cars go rather than give chase

"Of course it's frustrating when a crime occurs and we can't go after the person, but deep down inside most of us do know that you really have to weigh whether or not it is worth it to chase that person and risk everybody's life, or if we can just deal with the crime and hopefully through investigations we can catch the person that way."

The policy was introduced three years ago. It involves difficult decisions and a cultural change for the police officers having to operate it.

'Macho culture'

Implementing the same change in the UK would not be easy according to the former Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner and London mayoral candidate for the Liberal Democrats, Brian Paddick.

"It's part of the police macho culture I'm afraid, which is still dominant, to engage in these adrenaline rushes pursuing people.

"It would need very clear leadership and very clear policy from senior police officers and strict enforcement, a reminder to officers that they should not engage in these pursuits unless the offence is very serious."

Orlando changed its policies after a number of law suits, including one from John Philips, who lost his sister when a car being pursued by the police crashed into her as she waited at a stop sign.

He now campaigns to persuade other US police departments that it's dangerous and unnecessary to have unrestricted police chases.

"We have the ability to run license plate numbers in seconds, helicopters in the air, communications where we can have a whole large community of police communicating instantly," he said.

"Just because the fleeing vehicle gets out of the sight of the police officer right behind him, we are still going to get him."

Inside Out reports on police chases on BBC1, 1930GMT, Wed 14 Nov (London region only), D-Sat channel 974 or at the Inside Out website.


Serious-injury and fatal incidents in England and Wales

Year Pursuit-related Emergency response Other incidents Total incidents
2004/5 72 13 16 101
2005/6 71 13 25 109
2006/7 49 7 9 65*
* Quarters 1 and 2 only

Reviews are being carried out on high speed police chases



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