NJ police chases are killing innocent people. Here’s how to make them safer.

By Andrew Ford. Published Dec. 29, 2020.

Thousands have been injured or killed by New Jersey police pursuits in the last decade. Frequently no suspect is arrested and even when a suspect is caught, it’s seldom for a violent crime, an investigation by the Asbury Park Press and USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey found.

New Jersey is the only state with detailed rules for police pursuits, which were last revised in 2009.

Some cities have restricted the reasons police officers engage in pursuits. Technology has improved over the decade since the last rule revision. Giving cops new tools can empower them to make pursuits safer, a law enforcement expert said. 

Here are five ways the public can be protected from out-of-control chases and suspects can be apprehended more safely:

  • Tighten the reasons for pursuits. The state attorney general could remove the loophole that allows cops to chase cars for traffic infractions and craft the policy to limit the potentially deadly pursuits to situations in which cops have reason to believe a dangerous criminal is fleeing from them. Philadelphia has had a rule in place for 10 years that cops only chase cars when they have probable cause that the person has a deadly weapon or committed a major crime, like aggravated assault, murder or arson.

    The policy change more than cut in half the number of pursuits police engaged in, according to numbers provided by Philadelphia police. Still, pursuit deaths remained similar — federal data shows 12 deaths in the eight years after the change and 13 deaths in the eight years before. Newark, New Jersey, saw the same number of deaths in those years — but Philadelphia is home to more than five times as many people.
  • Train police officers for pursuits like they train with firearms. Police pursuits are much more common than police-involved shootings, and can be just as deadly. New Jersey officers are required to periodically show proficiency with their firearm, but the current statewide annual training requirement for car chases consists of a policy review, which a New Jersey police expert described as essentially a PowerPoint presentation.
    Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose confirmed the training required statewide is a classroom policy review, but he said he’s considering the purchase of a police driving computer simulator that could allow officers to train for pursuits. A national expert urged that officers should re-qualify annually by driving a real police vehicle. 
  • Invest in technology to make pursuits safer. Departments could purchase technology to track fleeing cars safely. StarChase is a company that can mount equipment behind the grille of a police cruiser that shoots a GPS tracking device onto a fleeing car to allow cops to catch a suspect later. Former Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn said he budgeted to put it on every police patrol car before he left office, at a cost of about $5,000 per car. After retiring, Flynn said he was compensated to advocate for federal funding for technology to reduce pursuits by Pursuit Response, a group that gets funding from StarChase as well as OnStar and FAAC, a company whose products include training simulators. Expanded use of license plate readers would allow patrolling officers to more easily record the identity of a fleeing driver, allowing police to catch them another day — off the highway.
  • Study pursuits. State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, introduced a resolution to urge the attorney general to review police chase policy. O’Scanlon’s resolution focuses on the use of police car lights and sirens, but he could broaden it to explore the criteria for when cops choose to engage in chases. “I’m interested and certainly happy to consider expanding what I’m calling for,” O’Scanlon said.
  • Record race in the police chase summaries. New Jersey police pursuit deaths lead the nation for racial disparity. To get a complete understanding of how that gap formed, publicly available summaries on the pursuits police initiate should record race information, when known.