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IN-DEPTH: When Milwaukee police can chase vehicles and how its policy has evolved

Posted at 6:36 PM, Jun 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-16 19:36:13-04

MILWAUKEE — After Tuesday night’s fatal crash following a police chase in Milwaukee, TMJ4 News is digging deeper into Milwaukee Police Department’s pursuit policy and how it has evolved over the years.

There’s often a renewed debate about the safety of MPD’s pursuit policy after just about every crash involving a police chase in Milwaukee. In the most recent case, police say it started with a stolen vehicle. A national police pursuit policy expert says he doesn’t believe that reason alone should justify a chase.

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After more than a mile of chasing, Milwaukee police say officers called off their pursuit when the driver of a stolen car drove into oncoming traffic on North 76th Street on the city’s northwest side. The result was a head-on crash that killed the 16-year-old driver and severely injured people in both cars.

"This is a tragic, tragic reminder of how dangerous it is for those who are in vehicles or driving vehicles recklessly, as well as for pedestrians and police officers,” Mayor Tom Barrett said Wednesday.

Milwaukee’s current police pursuit policy has been in place for more than two years and it allows officers to chase for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, when the driver has committed or is about to commit a violent felony, but it also allows pursuits when reckless driving or mobile drug trafficking is involved. Lastly, the policy permits officers to chase when the driver presents an immediate threat to the safety of others.

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Prior to 2017, officers could only chase a car if they had probable cause the people inside were involved in a violent felony. Four years ago, Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission made changes to the policy to allow officers to crack down on a surge of mobile drug trafficking and reckless driving.

While Mayor Barrett declined to share his stance on Milwaukee’s more lenient pursuit policy that remains in place, a national expert and former police captain with 35 years of experience doesn’t think officers should chase a vehicle just because it’s stolen.

"When we start losing lives based on a stolen vehicle, is the value of that stolen vehicle, a 16-year-old who doesn't make good decisions as it is, is that worth a life or is that worth the lives and or injuries that occurs?” said Tom Gleason.

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Gleason serves on the advisory board of an organization called Pursuit SAFETY and he trains departments across the country on best practices for pursuing fleeing vehicles while weighing the risk to officers and pedestrians. He says over the past two decades, many departments have transitioned to only chase those believed to be involved in violent felonies, which is the opposite direction Milwaukee’s pursuit policy has gone.

“If it's not a forcible felony such as an armed robbery, a murder or something where a gun is being used, in those cases then the best course of action, what most agencies are going with now, is do not pursue because of risk factors, and then taking in consideration the sanctity of life and the injuries involved,” he said,

In 2018, the year after Milwaukee police were allowed to pursue vehicles for a variety of reasons, chases skyrocketed 155 percent compared to the year prior. Officer and pedestrian injuries increased with more chases, but former Chief Alfonso Morales said the policy shift also resulted in a decrease in vehicle thefts and violent crime.

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TMJ4 News reached out to Milwaukee police, but a spokesperson declined our request for an interview about its pursuit policy.

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