USA Op Ed: My Pursuit To Reduce Police Chases

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My original submission title was My Pursuit To Reduce Police Chases. It was changed by USA Today to Police can kill with more than guns. After additional discussion it was revised to Police chases can kill.

Police chases can kill: Voices

My son died after being hit during a high-speed chase. Yet there is no tough federal law that regulates how cops pursue.

I’m that dad who received a 4 a.m. telephone call telling me that my son was dead.

Paul Farris was an innocent victim killed when police chased an SUV into a densely populated residential area outside Boston. The SUV crashed into the taxi in which Paul was riding, killing him, killing the taxi driver and critically injuring Paul’s girlfriend. Why? Because police decided to chase a man with a suspended license who made an illegal U-turn and refused to stop when the officer attempted to pull him over. A misdemeanor traffic violation is the reason my 23-year-old son died.

That was in 2007.

Turning anger into action

To manage my grief and anger, I needed to do something other than traditional therapy. I began researching police pursuits. What I discovered was horrifying.

Police pursue suspects in thousands of chases causing hundreds of deaths per year. Yet there are only weak, inconsistent policies regulating proper tracking and reporting of pursuit-related deaths. Between 1979 and 2015, more than 5,000 people were killed during high-speed chases, according to a USA TODAY special investigation published last year. And nearly once a month, a cop is killed in a high-speed chase.

My research has led me to one conclusion: This country desperately needs federal regulations that reduce high-speed chases for suspects who aren’t posing an immediate threat to public safety.

I’ve been fighting for legislative changes since Paul’s death.

The driver who failed to stop for police and who caused the chase that led to my son’s death had been doing little to nothing to endanger the public before the police pursuit started. Despite that, the trooper went after the driver through narrow city streets at 76 mph.

Pursuit policies are incredibly varied. Some jurisdictions allow pursuits only for violent felonies. Other jurisdictions allow police to chase for the simplest misdemeanors. I’ve seen incidents of police chasing someone for shoplifting baby formula. What happened to common sense?

A huge challenge is cross-jurisdictional pursuit policies. Federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies often have conflicting policies. The city in which my son was killed, Somerville, Mass., had a “no-chase” policy. But the more liberal state policy allowed troopers to continue the chase, which had started in a different district. That scenario plays out every day across the country.

Images don’t match the reality

Popular media often hinder realistic public understanding of police chases.

It seems that hardly a day goes by without a dashcam video or helicopter shot of a high-speed chase. Even advertisements try to make police chases look cool. After the 2016 Super Bowl, I challenged Toyota USA over its offensive Prius police chase ad, which featured robbers fleeing police by using the vehicle. Those ads were disrespectful to law enforcement and to thousands of victims of police-pursuit crashes. I connected with several of Toyota’s senior officials. Thankfully, the ads are no longer running.

Over the past several years, I’ve met with House and Senate leaders to create meaningful legislation aimed at saving innocent lives and supporting law enforcement. Language was added to the House Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2017 to encourage federal tracking and reporting of pursuit-related deaths and injuries. The bill would also make clear that federal grant monies are available to law enforcement agencies for pursuit reduction technology. I also speak with veteran officers and new recruits at police departments throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, the states closest to my current home, on reducing police pursuits and saving officer and civilian lives.

If I’m successful, then perhaps my therapy by way of activism will prevent you from receiving an unimaginable and life-altering 4 a.m. phone call.

Jonathan Farris is founder of Pursuit For Change, an advocacy group working to change federal and local pursuit policies by seeking legislation to more effectively track and manage dangerous police chases and helping law enforcement implement pursuit reduction technology. 


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