Hundreds Are Killed Each Year in Police Pursuits, Many of Them Bystanders

The Brownsville Independent School District (BISD) Police and Security Services in Texas responded to a suspicious activity call at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning that culminated in an officer discharging his weapon at a suspect who was recklessly driving through the Porter High School campus.

BISD announced shortly after the altercation that no students or staff were injured, but that's not always the case. Reports show that on average, more than 320 people are killed each year in high-speed police pursuits, and 27 percent of those killed are innocent bystanders.

Since 1979, more than 5,000 bystanders have been killed during police pursuits in the U.S., according to HG.org, one of the world's largest legal resource sites, which cited a study that said police pursuits are the most dangerous activities in law enforcement.

Many deaths occur when a suspect hits the bystander with their vehicle to escape police. Fortunately, no one was injured as the suspect sped through the scene on Tuesday in Texas.

Bystanders Killed in Police Chases
A stolen Tesla sits wrecked on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles after a police chase. Since 1979, more than 5,000 bystanders have been killed during police pursuits in the U.S. (Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images)

Many police departments adopt policies that prohibit police pursuits or restrict them
unless a suspect is wanted on a felony charge. Connecticut-based Woolf Law Firm posted a blog dedicated to police pursuit injuries on its website, which said that determining the actual number of people injured or killed by police pursuits is difficult.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports traffic-related deaths, but reports submitted by police departments don't always acknowledge blame. Many of those reports also don't confirm if the person killed in the chase was the suspect or an innocent bystander. Reports show that in addition to the hundreds killed annually, as many as 7,400 people are injured per year in
pursuits.

Woolf Law Firm Managing Attorney Brian J. Woolf told Newsweek that he published the blog in the wake of state legislation considering guidelines for police pursuits, which had been in effect since 2000. The state's Updated Modern Pursuit Policy was adopted in 2019.

"There have been a lot of issues in Connecticut in major cities, not unlike other major cities, where police engage particularly juveniles in pursuit," Woolf said.

"There were no specific guidelines on when police could engage in pursuit. There are now guidelines. [Guidelines state] engaging in police pursuits was too dangerous and police should refrain from doing so unless the person has committed a felony. They also have to take into consideration the surrounding
circumstances—highways and things of that kind."

Reports show that many of the injuries and deaths are unnecessary. As many as 91 percent of pursuits occur when drivers are suspected of non-violent crimes, with traffic violations being the most common reasons officers choose to pursue suspects.

"According to the study, the number of police chases far outweigh the number of police shootings in the United States each year," according to HG.org.

The site said Los Angeles and Chicago are associated with the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by police pursuits. HG.org estimates the actual number of bystander deaths to be vastly underreported.

A few recent bystander deaths include a pursuit leading to the death of motorcyclist in Pearl, Mississippi, on August 14. It was the second time in less than a month that an innocent bystander was killed because of a police pursuit in Pearl. One pursuit occurred after the suspect took off during a traffic stop. The suspect then crashed into a motorcycle, killing the driver.

A July police pursuit killed a young woman in Charlotte, North Carolina. In St. Louis, Missouri, a pursuit killed seven bystanders in two weeks in May, including two children.

Newsweek reached out to the U.S. Department of Justice and BISD for comment.