Under Portland PD's updated policy, officers are expected to "only engage in pursuits when the benefits to the public clearly outweigh these inherent risks."  -  Photo: Portland Police Bureau/Canva/Government Fleet

Under Portland PD's updated policy, officers are expected to "only engage in pursuits when the benefits to the public clearly outweigh these inherent risks."

Photo: Portland Police Bureau/Canva/Government Fleet

The Portland, Oregon, Police Bureau has announced it loosened its restrictions for officers to start pursuits.

Easing Previous Agency Policies

In 2017, the department implemented tighter restrictions on its pursuit policy. The change significantly restricted officers from initiating vehicle pursuits to very limited circumstances.

Those included when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the suspect committed a felony person crime, or where the suspect’s driving conduct prior to the initiation of a stop displayed a willful disregard for the safety of others that reasonably placed the public in immediate danger of serious bodily harm or death.

"Since that change, we have seen a significant propensity for criminal suspects to elude traffic stops, often driving extremely dangerously despite no officers chasing them," the agency stated in a news release, noting a Nov. 2023 incident where a suspect in a stolen vehicle eluded authorities, driving recklessly at high speeds through residential areas.

In these instances, policy restrictions have impeded officers’ efforts to quickly intervene and end the suspect’s dangerous driving behavior. Some vehicle eludes have ended with serious injury crashes and even fatalities, including a June 2023 deadly crash involving a robbery suspect eluding law enforcement.

A woman was hit and killed by a suspect eluding Portland Police Bureau officers, though they were not chasing him, in June 2023.  -  Photo: Portland Police Bureau

A woman was hit and killed by a suspect eluding Portland Police Bureau officers, though they were not chasing him, in June 2023.

Photo: Portland Police Bureau

The driver continued recklessly driving despite no police chasing him and caused a crash that killed a woman.

"Anecdotally, suspects have repeatedly told officers that they are aware of Portland Police Bureau policy and they are more likely to try to elude thinking their chances of escape are higher in Portland than other jurisdictions," the news release continued.

A Look at the New Policy

Because vehicle pursuits are dynamic and rapidly evolving in nature, there are inherent safety risks attached. Per the updated policy, officers are expected to "only engage in pursuits when the benefits to the public clearly outweigh these inherent risks."

The new policy also clarifies the existing practice of authorizing pursuits in 'extraordinary circumstances.' Specifically, it creates an explicit set of factors for supervisors to weigh when deciding whether to authorize a pursuit that falls outside of the normal person felony, or dangerous driving behavior standard.

According to the policy, those factors include:

  • The seriousness of the offense committed, and the risk the suspect(s) poses to the community.
  • The suspect’s driving behavior and vehicle condition, as well as the presence of passengers in the fleeing vehicle.
  • The member’s knowledge of the area(s), proximity of cover and feasibility of implementing pursuit intervention strategies.
  •  The type of area, volume and presence of other vehicles and/or pedestrian traffic, and environmental and visibility conditions.

Additionally, the updated policy asks officers to consider the totality of the circumstances, what course of action is most likely to keep the community safe, and provides them the tools to do so effectively. It also removes barriers to using certain tools and pursuit interventions.

Per the new policy, only a maximum of three units should engage in a pursuit with lights and sirens continuously activated. Exceptions to this may be authorized by a supervisor under very limited circumstances and only when an "unusually dangerous situation dictates."

Additionally, the new policy changes the 'known suspect' rule, allowing pursuits of known suspects in circumstances where deferring attempts at apprehension would be more dangerous.

Eliminating Speed Requirements

The policy changes the standard for all vehicle intervention maneuvers — like the box-in , PIT, or ramming — to 'objectively reasonable' under the totality of the circumstances. This eliminates speed requirements.

The changes are designed to promote individualized decision making by officers, and to reflect the legal standard under the 4th Amendment, as well as the current version of the agency's use of force policy.

Each decision to use force is "highly individualized and fact specific, and officers should not be focused on speed to the exclusion of other elements such as vehicle condition, traffic, etc.," the news release stated.

Pursuits for Special Missions

The updated directive also allows pursuits to be authorized for crimes other than felony person crimes when they are planned as part of a specific mission or operation.

The agency noted that this change was made because it is possible to reduce, though not eliminate, the risks of pursuits when resources are put in place and specific planning around circumstances and contingencies is possible. Still, the overriding principle is that the benefits of apprehension must always outweigh the risk of a pursuit.

Additionally, the mission plan must include sufficient resources and planning to make resolution of pursuits faster, and more likely to be successful. There must also be an articulation of why pursuits are necessary to fulfill the goals of the specific mission.

Clarifying Terminology in the Policy

One goal for the policy revision was to clarify several definitions and procedures to make them easier to understand and create a more objective standard.

Those changes include:

  • Pursuit: Changed to clarify the definition, and to focus specifically on preventing dangerous driving by officers outside of a declared pursuit.
  • Trailing: Added to clarify an existing practice of allowing officers to follow an eluding suspect so long as their driving behavior neither induces the suspect to flee or engage in dangerous behavior, and the officers themselves are not creating a risk to the public.
  • Extraordinary Circumstances: Codifies a previously allowed form of pursuit authorization. The new language creates an explicit set of factors for supervisors to weigh when deciding whether to authorize a pursuit that falls outside of the normal person felony, or dangerous driving behavior standard.

Officers must terminate a pursuit when the safety risks posed to the community clearly outweigh the benefit of capturing the suspect.

The changes to this policy were coordinated with the Portland Police Bureau's Police Commissioner, the City Attorney’s Office, the Training Division, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Portland Police Association, and the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association.

Prepping Officers for the Policy Change

The update is being released in conjunction with a bureau-wide training on policy, the law, as well as hands-on training on police vehicle operations.

The agency will collect and monitor the data from the new vehicle pursuit policy and consider that data during future policy review processes.

The revised policy goes into effect this month.

Controversy Over Police Pursuits

Nationwide, agencies are in conversations about their pursuit policies as they respond to changes in the overall landscape of law enforcement. The Portland Police Bureau believes its shift in policy is consistent with this trend, as it aims to address a "local public safety need more adequately."

The topic of the necessity of pursuits has been long debated, due to the inherent risks associated with them.

Pointing to data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Police Executive Research Forum reported that crashes involving police pursuits led to the deaths of 525 people in 2021. 

In Sept. 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice released a guide by the Police Executive Research Forum to help law enforcement agencies manage the risks of conducting vs. not conducting vehicular pursuits. The guide includes 65 recommendations that agencies can consider to help develop or refine their policies.

Among those recommendations, the report's authors suggest:

  • Agency policy should list key factors in assessing the risk of a pursuit and to make clear officers must assess these factors before initiating a pursuit.
  • Agency policy should emphasize preventing pursuits when possible and describe how tire deflation devices can be used as a pursuit alternative.
  • Agencies should explore the use of tagging and tracking technology to assist in vehicle pursuits.
  • Agency policy and training should address situations where a pursuit is not permitted but an aviation source can help track a suspect until a vehicle has stopped.
  • Agencies choosing to allow PIT maneuvers should require prior supervisor approval.

To see the rest of the recommendations, visit FleetSHARE to download the document. FleetSHARE is open to qualified public sector fleet employees.

About the author
Christy Grimes

Christy Grimes

Senior Editor

Christy Grimes is a Senior Editor at Bobit, working on Automotive Fleet Government Fleet publications.

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