Stop! Thief! C-R-U-N-C-H!

The good old days of high-speed police chases (and the resulting mayhem) are about to end

Pictured in this month's newsletter of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association is a tightlipped police officer bound in handcuffs, a blindfold, and a ball and chain. He is superimposed over a backdrop of the U.S. flag, and beneath him is the caption: "NOW! GO OUT AND DO A GOOD JOB."

Talk of bondage is common these days among Metro-Dade police officers. Their department revised its policy governing police pursuits last month, restricting car chases to cases of murder, robbery, rape, and other violent felonies. The new rule prohibits pursuit of suspects fleeing from the scene of a misdemeanor or a nonviolent felony, such as DUI and burglary. In addition, screaming high-speed chases may be a thing of the past. Under the new policy, pursuits of suspected violent felons may not exceed the speed limit by more than twenty miles per hour.

"Officers, in the past, have been plagued with restrictions," writes Mike Clifton, Dade County Police Benevolent Association president, in the union newsletter. "But this possibly is a decision that will tie officers' hands most severely."

Metro-Dade police chief Fred Taylor issued the revision after a recent Florida Supreme Court ruling that police aren't immune to lawsuits if a reckless high-speed chase injures or kills innocent bystanders. The decision emerged from a lawsuit filed against Pinellas County on behalf of two sisters killed in a 1984 chase near St. Petersburg. In what the court called an "enormous overreaction," as many as twenty police cars chased a man who had run a red light. The deadly caravan covered 25 miles and reached speeds up to 120 miles per hour. The fleeing suspect also died in the resulting collision.

Almost every police officer can tell a tale of adrenaline-powered chases that ended in mangled heaps of metal and flesh. According to a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, two of every five high-speed police chases in the U.S. end in property damage; one in four ends in injury. The study also found that an average of 287 people died as a result of police pursuit every year during the Eighties. Moreover, the vast majority of high-speed chases begin with a minor traffic violation.

With these statistics and the Florida Supreme Court ruling in mind, police departments all across Florida are revising their pursuit policies. In November the Florida Highway Patrol barred high-speed chases in cases that didn't involve violent crime. In Dade County the police departments of Miami Beach and Hialeah are among those law enforcement agencies currently changing their policies. The Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police plans to recommend a general policy this week. Donald F. March, Jr., assistant chief of the Miami Police Department, expects that most municipalities will adopt the association's guidelines.

The revisions have angered police officers who feel the stricter policies will further hamper their ability to enforce the law. "Police officers just feel like it's another step backward," remarks Tony Loizzo, Dade County police union vice president. "Rather than punish the offender, they've taken another tool away from the officer."

Adds Lynda Veski, president of the Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police: "The criminal element out there knows that if we're not going to pursue, then they know that all they have to do is run. And it won't just be the criminal element. Kids, too, are going to get caught up in this." As a result, she says, the new rules may lead to more accidents and injuries, not fewer.

Commander Lou Diecidue, spokesman for the Metro-Dade Police Department, understands the disgruntlement. News of the revamped pursuit policy initially perturbed him, but he now believes it's better to let a criminal temporarily escape apprehension than to jeopardize the safety of citizens and officers. "Officers generally see new rules and regulations as handcuffing," remarks Diecidue, a Metro-Dade police officer for 37 years. "When the Miranda [Act] first came out, there was similar grumbling. Everybody was up in arms, including myself." But in time, he says, the officers realized the wisdom of the Miranda law, which requires law enforcement officers to advise suspects of their legal rights at the time of arrest.

The doubtful can look to the example of the Baltimore Police Department in Maryland, which two decades ago adopted a more cautious approach to police pursuit. According to a department spokesman, officers aren't permitted to travel faster than ten miles per hour over the speed limit. Instead they rely on technological savvy, tracking fleeing suspects by radio and the department's fleet of five helicopters.

Metro-Dade's Loizzo scoffs at the mention of aerial surveillance. "That's a TV thing," he snaps. The reality is that Dade County has little or no aerial police surveillance. Miami is the only municipality with its own helicopter, and Hurricane Andrew destroyed two of Metro-Dade's four helicopters. The county currently leases an additional helicopter but has no plans to repair either of the damaged aircraft.

 
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