To Chase or Not to Chase

When motorists flee, police often call off the chase. Why?

Rachel Banks’ flight from Spokane police probably would have been successful had she not crashed her car into a house on North Maple Street.

Her pursuit started after Officer Scott Lesser attempted to pull her over on the Maple Street Bridge on the night of Aug. 1. Lesser’s suspicions were aroused when he noticed a white Chevrolet Camaro tailgating a white Honda Accord —it’s a common practice among car thieves, police say, to have a partner drive closely behind a stolen car, so as to conceal the stolen car’s license plate.

When Lesser turned on his lights, the Accord took off, with Banks behind the wheel. After less than a minute of pursuit, Lesser relented due to the speed they were driving and the residential nature of the Maple Street neighborhood they were passing through.

Shortly thereafter, Banks crashed the Accord into a house and was later taken to the hospital before being arrested on suspicion of eluding police and possession of a stolen vehicle.

The days when police can pursue fleeing suspects for anything less than a felony are long gone. Lawsuits and fatalities have led police to exercise more discretion when engaging in car chases.

“It’s got to be a pretty damn bad felony for us to continue,” says Tim Moses, a spokesman for Spokane police. “More often than not, an officer is going to die in a vehicle-related incident rather than being shot or stabbed.”

So when can police pursue?

The Spokane Police Department, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and Coeur d’Alene Police Department all have separate but similar policies for dealing with fleeing suspects. Generally, they will only pursue people suspected of committing felonies such as murder, assault and robbery, or those whom they believe to pose an immediate threat to the public.

“Are you going to pursue a shoplifter going down [Interstate] 95 at 100 mph over a pack of gum from Kmart?” says Christie Wood, spokeswoman for Coeur d’Alene police. “No, we’re not.”

In the case of the sheriff’s office, a deputy who calls off a chase is required to pull over and turn off all lights and sirens so the suspect knows that the pursuit is off, says Dave Reagan, a spokesman. Spokane police follow this policy as well. Coeur d’Alene does not.

An erratic driver may not be a criminal, says Reagan, but rather someone who is having a seizure or some kind of medical emergency.

That may have been the case in late June, when a man fleeing sheriff’s deputies south of Deer Park crashed into an oncoming semi-trailer after his tires were flattened by a spike strip, Reagan says. Though the medical examiner has not finished tests on the driver’s remains, the Spokesman-Review reported that the man was diabetic.

The regulations governing car chases are periodically updated by local law enforcement agencies. While there was once a time when police could chase people who fled traffic infractions, Moses says the directive now is to get the suspect’s make, model and license plate, and catch them another day.

“People run for a variety of reasons,” Moses says. “None of them are really bright, none of them are worth the danger they put themselves in.”

Dressing the Abbey: The Iconic Wardrobe of Downton Abbey @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 2
  • or

About The Author

Chris Stein

Chris Stein is a staff writer at The Inlander. He covers social services, downtown Spokane, Eastern Washington and Spokane city hall. His work has been published by the Associated Press, VeloNews and the Santa Barbara Independent. He was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.