Chicago cops need a better policy on foot chases

Police officers, the community and suspects should not be put in unnecessary danger.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to reporters during a press-conference with updates to the Adam Toledo shooting at New Life Church in Little Village on Monday

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot got it right when she said the Chicago Police Department needs a clear-cut policy on foot chases. Such chases are dangerous for police officers, for the suspects being pursued and for the neighborhood people who get caught in the middle.

Foot chases — in which police officers on foot pursue suspects — will always be a necessary part of police work. But they are fraught with risks and should be limited to those times when the need to catch somebody who is dangerous outweighs the hazards all around.

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In January, 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice called on Chicago’s police department to implement rules and guidelines on foot chases. Groups involved in the department’s court-monitored reform effort urged the police to look at model policies drawn up by police departments in Santa Monica, California, and Austin, Texas, as well as by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Then, on March 5, the independent monitor overseeing police reform in Chicago recommended a policy be adopted for foot pursuits.

But a clear policy has yet to be adopted.

The Chicago Police Department trains officers on foot chases and in February it issued a training bulletin citing risks police officers should take into consideration before starting a foot chase. But those measures fall short of a highly specific policy for which police officers can be held accountable.

Lightfoot spoke out on the matter this week, after a police officer shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo on March 21 in the Little Village neighborhood. Then, two days later, a Chicago police officer shot and killed a man in Portage Park after a pursuit on foot.

The best policies on foot chases all require that chases be reassessed continuously as facts on the ground change. Is the officer now chasing more than one suspect? Have two officers been separated during the chase? Is the offense really worth the escalating risk that comes with running down alleys and gangways?

And if the officer knows the suspect’s identity, could the officer give up the chase for now and arrest the suspect at a different time?

CPD’s policy on foot chases should provide officers with clear guidance and the department should seek input from community groups in drawing up the new rules. The aim should be to make police and the community safer, not penalize cops who must make split-second decisions in extremely difficult circumstances.

Around the country, police departments have been slow to adopt better policies on foot chases. But that’s changing. Some departments now tell officers not to continue a foot chase if they are alone while chasing multiple suspects or if they have lost their weapon. Officers are told not to split up. They are told to consider factors such as low visibility and whether a suspect is armed.

In 2016, the Chicago Tribune, using data collected by the police themselves, reported that foot chases played a role in more than a third of Chicago police shooting cases from 2010 to 2015. A new foot-chase policy should require that the department keep track of all chases, even those that did not result in a use of force, and document what happened in each instance.

In 2013, the city of Dallas — where Chicago Police Supt. David Brown was police chief at the time — analyzed this kind of data, concluded that its foot-chase policy was not working as intended and made changes.

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Efforts by police departments to better regulate foot chases mirror earlier efforts by departments to rein in high-speed car chases. Too often, patrol car chases sparked by minor traffic infractions led to deadly crashes.

In the movies, cops who give chase on foot usually catch the bad guy, or at least nobody gets hurt. In real life, things don’t always work out that way.

The Chicago Police Department needs a foot-chase policy for real life.

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