Thursday, December 04, 2003

High-Speed Chases

Today on my radio show, in a discussion of whether the police should engage in a high-speed chase -- such as the one that killed an innocent bystander earlier this week in Granite City, Illinois -- opinion was fairly well split, although most people don't blame the cops for the man's death. But several people said the police should take even more aggressive actions: bump the suspect's car with the police car, shoot out the tires, or use some high-tech weapon to disable the suspect and his vehicle.

There are several problems with these arguments.

Bumping the car sounds easier that it actually is. This guy was going 100mph. If you make contact with his bumper or fender, you risk wrecking your own vehicle, and possibly sending him hurtling into another innocent driver. Then you'd have the same complaints about cops needlessly endangering the lives of citizens.

As for shooting out the tires, that's part of the Dirty Harry Complex that too many Americans suffer from. It's part of the same thinking behind support for concealed-carry laws. They're sure that in any situation, the bullet from the good guy's gun will always hit its target perfectly, usually on the first shot, just like in the
movies. Of course, they would never miss, like movie bad guys do when they empty a hundred rounds without hitting James Bond or even nicking his tuxedo jacket. Unfortunately, in real life, it doesn't work that way. Firing a gun from a fast-moving, pursuing police cruiser at the tires of the suspect's weaving, speeding car isn't as easy as it sounds.

When it comes to high-tech weaponry, it seems that the most advanced devices local police can use are Stop Sticks, those spikes in the road that deflate car tires. They were used in the Florissant-Granite City chase, but the suspect drove around them. Meanwhile, where are all those other non-lethal weapons we've seen displayed on newsmagazines and the Discovery Channel for the last few years? Outside of televised demonstrations, I've yet to hear about a single incident in which the cops used sticky anti-riot foam, or giant capture nets, or directed electronic magnetic pulse devices. These and similar technologies may still be in the experimental phases, but are probably also too expensive for local department budgets.

So, it doesn't seem that the cops have many options. They can either chase the guy until they catch him -- which puts other lives at risk -- or let him go and try to catch him another day -- which may put other lives at risk.

If only they could literally corner the suspect between a rock and a hard place.