New MPD policy limits police chase justifications

The Milwaukee Police Department issued major changes to its pursuit policy last week after four people died in three different incidents since December 31. Drivers in all three incidents were fleeing police.

The new policy, enacted by Police Chief Edward A. Flynn, more clearly defines what may or may not warrant officers engaging in a vehicular pursuit of a suspect.

The policy identifies three major justifications of when officers may pursue a vehicle:

  • When police have probable cause that the occupants have committed a violent felony. This includes crimes such as armed robbery or recklessly endangering safety.
  • If the occupants of the vehicle present a “clear and immediate threat” to the safety of others. Officers must consider if apprehending the suspect outweighs the level of danger created by the vehicle pursuit.
  • When a subject is accused of a lesser offense. However, once the “refusal to stop” pursuit becomes an “eluding/fleeing” pursuit, the pursuit must meet the first two criteria.

Flynn said he made the changes to the policy to keep the public and officers safe.

“Every pursuit risks the lives of our officers and innocent members of the public due to the recklessness of those who refuse to stop for the police,” Flynn said in a statement. “I have an obligation to my officers, despite the risks they are willing to take, to limit their risk of injury or death, to make sure that the danger represented by the suspect justifies the risk of violent death. All too often it does not justify that risk.”

While the policy attempts to provide safety to officers and civilians alike, it also helps balance the city’s liabilities in the aftermath of a pursuit, said Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission Executive Director Michael G. Tobin.

“The policy also balances legal liability and the potential for the city to be held accountable for large civil damages when a pursuit is judged in hindsight by a jury and the public,” Tobin said.

The new policy met criticism upon its announcement. Some say it severely limits officers’ ability to pursue criminals that pose a danger in the community.

“So now, if a burglary suspect or drug dealer jumps in a vehicle and refuses to stop for a patrol car, he’ll be able to take off and get away because the crime was not a violent felony,” said Alderman Bob Donovan in a statement. “You can bet that very few of these scumbags will be hitting the brake pedal when they get lit up by MPD. They’ll be pushing the accelerator down hard because they know the cops won’t pursue.”

Despite criticism, the new policy became effective immediately with Flynn’s announcement.