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FHP relaxes high-speed chase policy, sparking safety & transparency concerns

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Florida Highway Patrol has offered troopers a longer leash to chase fleeing vehicles at high speeds, a notable shift at a time when many other agencies across the country are enforcing limits on the high-profile tactic.

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Effective Dec. 22, suspects no longer need to have committed a felony, DUI or be driving recklessly in order for a pursuit to be initiated, according to the document posted on FHP’s website.

Instead, a chase can begin as soon as someone begins fleeing, so long as troopers believe it’s safe and appropriate to do so.

The change was one of many differences between the prior version of the pursuit policy that became effective in Oct. 2022 and the new one, including:

  • Allowing troopers riding motorcycles to initiate pursuits
  • Dropping a prohibition on chasing suspects riding motorcycles unless the suspect committed a violent felony
  • Allowing troopers to drive through stop signs and red lights without stopping
  • Allowing troopers to drive on the wrong side of a divided highway when they believe there’s an imminent danger to the public
  • Deleting guidelines about posted speed limits, including strict limits around toll booths
  • Encouraging troopers to join another agency’s pursuit upon the request of the other agency. Before, a supervisor needed to check whether the chase complied with FHP policies.
  • Allowing troopers to chase suspects across state lines on any occasion, instead of just felonies that excluded fleeing from police

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The biggest difference between the old policy and new, however, was the tone it set. Whereas the overview to the 2022 policy began by warning of the dangers of high-speed pursuits, the 2023 version dropped much of the safety talk to later in the document.

“Emergency responses and vehicular pursuits of fleeing suspects are critical to the effective enforcement of laws, preservation of law and order, and preservation of life,” the new policy overview stated. “Violators who make a conscious decision to flee from law enforcement also make a conscious decision to put the community, the member(s), and the public in danger.”

FHP leaders declined to comment or explain why they believed the relaxed rules and shift in tone were necessary.

While a hallmark of action movies and routine assignment for Los Angeles-area helicopter pilots, high-speed chases are controversial, even within police departments.

The United States averages one fatal pursuit-related crash every day, a recent Department of Justice study showed. A third of pursuits ended in a crash, and up to 17% of them led to an injury or fatality.

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While the suspects are most likely to be injured or killed, 24% of so-called “negative outcomes” happen to passengers in the fleeing vehicle, law enforcement officers or innocent bystanders, the study found.

The DOJ report encouraged agencies to limit pursuits to violent felony offenders and cases where officers believed the public was in imminent danger and called for a national pursuit standard.

“They were saying that the benefit of the chase wasn’t worth the lives,” police consultant Dr. Randy Nelson said, of agencies he works with.

Nelson called on FHP to be transparent about its change and explain why troopers needed to engage in more chases, especially in the era where cameras and license plate readers can help troopers identify a suspect for a later arrest. He said this type of change needed to have buy-in from the community.

“Those days are behind us… unless they have statistics that show that our citizens are losing their lives or being injured because we’re not pursuing or failing to pursue,” he said.

Central Florida officers already considered FHP to be one of the more aggressive agencies in respect to chases before the changes were implemented.

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Most local agencies restricted pursuits to violent felonies after a 2001 chase led to the death of Sarah Marie Phillips, whose car was rear-ended while stopped at a spike strip set up by Orange County deputies.

Her father, Jim Phillips, founded PursuitWatch, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating “unnecessary” police pursuits.

“There are safer ways to do police pursuits,” PursuitWatch spokesman Lucas Aragón said. “It’s not worth someone’s loved one to be killed.”

Aragón lost his sister in 2010 when a fleeing driver t-boned her car while she was waiting at an intersection. The driver had just robbed a bank, and tellers had placed a GPS tracker inside the bag of money so officers could locate him.

He said he’d never heard of a department loosening its pursuit policies since he became involved in advocacy work.

“It’s become sort of like pastime for Americans to watch on TV,” he said. “These are real people who lives are affected, all because someone decides that they think they can outrun the police and they never do.”

Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Executive Director Dave Kerner provided Channel 9 with the following statement Friday:

“Florida State Troopers are some of the most highly trained and experienced law enforcement officers in the nation when it comes to pursuit and vehicle operations. Under Governor DeSantis, Florida law enforcement leads as a law and order state and holding dangerous criminals accountable for their destructive behavior.

FHP’s revised “Pursuit and Emergency Response” policies empowers Troopers to hold fleeing felons accountable while protecting Floridians by ensuring pursuits are ended as soon as possible through P.I.T, intentional contact, aviation asset interception, and self-termination of the pursuit. It aligns our policies with the authorities granted by state law. Most importantly, and while many states shy away from holding dangerous felons accountable for their decisions, the Florida Highway Patrol seeks to use every tool and tactic available to ensure dangerous felons end up in jail and off our streets.

FHP is investing over 20 million dollars in enhanced vehicle operations training facilities and nearly 7 million in new aviation assets designed to intercept fleeing felons. FHP will continue to work with and assist our partner agencies to keep Florida safe. Finally, we put focus and emphasis on the destructive behaviors of reckless fleeing felons, instead of excusing or ignoring their behaviors and decisions. Floridians have the right to be and protected on their roadways and highways, and we appreciate the support of the many communities we serve as we work to hold those accountable who wish to do harm to us all.”

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