ST. LOUIS COUNTY • In what could be a first in the country, St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch is using a public opinion survey to shape a department policy. And it involves one of the most controversial subjects: when to permit vehicle pursuits.
Right now, county police can only pursue a suspect in a crime in which deadly force was used or implied. That limits chases to about a dozen a year.
Fitch plans to seek approval from police commissioners by the end of the year to allow officers to pursue suspects in drunken driving or first-degree burglary cases. Both received public support in a recent survey.
Some are lauding Fitch for considering public sentiments but caution that the research must be solid and that changes could pose liability risks.
The chief tapped Timothy Maher and Mark DeBarr at the University of Missouri-St. Louis to conduct the $1,000 survey after sensing public outrage when police did not chase suspects in the theft of copper from homes in Pasadena Hills and a slew of car break-ins.
"I think a lot of police departments think that what the public thinks is irrelevant and have a 'we know what's best' mentality," Maher said. "That's unfortunate, because the police are performing a public service. I think police departments would be well-served if they did get public opinion, because people want to have a say in how they're governed, including how they're policed."
About half of the survey respondents said they wanted police to chase criminals involved in property crimes in general. Fitch disagrees with that on safety grounds but understands the frustration.
"People are tired of being victims and say, 'What do you mean you let them go?'" Fitch said. "But they don't get it unless they have a loved one killed in that situation."
About 360 people are killed each year in U.S. police chases, according to a published report in 2010 that cited National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
One result of the survey that stood out was 80 percent support for chasing DWI suspects. Fitch has proposed to allow them but only as fast as the posted speed limit.
"The public thinks we should chase them period, regardless of speed or not," Fitch said. "First and foremost we are to do no harm, and we don't want to create a more dangerous situation by chasing DWI suspects at high speeds."
Right now, an officer can pull behind an impaired driver, flash the warning lights and sound the siren. But if the vehicle does not pull over, a supervisor tells the officers to terminate the pursuit.
Fitch said typical drunk drivers are slow, not fast, and often don't notice that police are trying to stop them. "How many people are in danger when we don't stop them?" he asked in an interview. "It's almost neglectful to allow a person to continue driving like that."
Speed would not necessarily be limited in a case of first-degree burglary, which Fitch said may involve a confrontation with the victims and is a crime bold enough to be considered dangerous.
Maher and DeBarr admit in their report that the survey, done earlier this year, has its limits.
Only about 20 percent of the 675 mailed surveys were returned. The average respondent was a 56-year-old white male homeowner.
That leads Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, to be skeptical.
"Basing decisions on public opinion is absolutely a rare and great idea, but don't make decisions based on a sample with a 20 percent response rate of older white males that have never seen a chase," he told a reporter.
In a unrelated study that Alpert conducted, respondents given statistics on how many people and officers are killed during pursuits were much more conservative in their responses about when a chase is justified, he said.
Candy Priano said her answers to such a survey would have been quite different before her 15-year-old daughter, Kristie, was killed in 2002 while police in Chico, Calif., were chasing a suspected car thief. She wondered whether others without her experience have as clear a view.
"It's sort of like giving me a survey on cancer," she said. "Fortunately I have not had cancer, so how could I answer a survey on cancer?"
Since her daughter's death, Priano founded a nonprofit group called Voices Insisting on Pursuit Safety. It recognized the St. Louis County police earlier this year for the alternative methods it used to catch the copper thief and stop the car break-ins without pursuits.
Priano highlighted how the county's current policy holds officers accountable and mandates that other officers take up strategic positions along pursuit routes to warn other drivers when possible. But she said she cannot support a new policy that ultimately means more pursuits.
"The public needs to know that there will be more chases that will occur and consequently more chases increase the likelihood that someone they love will be killed or injured as a result," she explained.
Should those chases result in a death or injury to an innocent bystander, the question of liability will undoubtedly arise, said lawyer Robert Goldson of Webster Groves-based Goldson & Hoekel. His firm specializes in civil litigation and personal injury cases.
"You have to rely on the safety standards that are out there and not the whims of what people want," Goldson said.
Fitch, the chief, said the new policy reflects standards the Supreme Court has deemed acceptable for pursuits. He said a team of lawyers will review the proposed changes by November before they are sent to the police board for final approval.
"This is not something we just jumped into and made a quick decision on," Fitch said. "It's one of the most important policies we have in the police department, and we must research it thoroughly and take our time with it."