Decisions on the run

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.

It’s been almost five years since the Philadelphia Police Department’s own integrity officer called for establishing a foot-pursuit policy when suspects flee. Despite deaths, shootings, and a lawsuit, there are still no guidelines.

The inaction may result in a steep price paid in lives — to both civilians and police officers — and legal judgments against the city when foot chases go wrong.

Indeed, a federal lawsuit on behalf of a man shot and killed following a foot chase in 2006 contends that a pursuit policy could have helped avoid the incident.

In addition to monetary damages, the lawsuit, by the family of Raymond Pelzer, could force the city to implement foot-pursuit guidelines. But why wait — especially when police officers’ lives could depend upon it?
Pelzer, 25, was shot when he reached for a cell phone while cornered after a chase. Such adrenaline-charged pursuits also can endanger officers.

The fatal shooting last year of Sgt. Patrick McDonald followed a foot chase. The convicted felon who killed McDonald was later shot and killed by another officer.

Officers face even greater risks during car chases — again, an area where the Police Department has opted not to adopt the most sensible policy. That would be to ban car chases, given the city’s dense streets and inherent risks to motorists and pedestrians.

The lack of a zero-tolerance policy on car chases is all the more surprising, since the Police Department has lost two officers in chase crashes since Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey arrived. Officer Isabel Nazario and Sgt. Timothy Simpson both died in wrecks resulting from hot pursuits.

With foot chases, it’s not merely the vagaries of traffic patterns that threaten lives. The chases often result in dangerous confrontations with suspects in which police are more likely to have to shoot.

A 2005 report by the department’s then-integrity officer, Ellen Green-Ceisler, found nearly half of all police shootings over a five-year period occurred following foot chases. Green-Ceisler, since elected as a city judge, recommended the department set guidelines for chases and ban questionable foot-pursuit tactics.

Ramsey took over well after the report came out, but nonetheless has decided not to handcuff officers in chase situations. At least officers do receive training on foot chases.

The Police Department doesn’t embrace reform easily. In similar fashion, civilian complaints about police officers like the one who shot and killed an unarmed Port Richmond man Nov. 21 seem to produce few results. The upshot instead has been to not replace the integrity officer, who shined a light on problems and was criticized by former

Commissioner Sylvester Johnson and then-Mayor John F. Street.

On dangerous foot chases, the police should implement a policy rather than make it up on the run.