Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields said her department’s new no-chase policy was enacted out of an abundance of caution.
The policy, which took effect Jan. 3, applies only to vehicle chases and not foot or helicopter pursuits.
“Just to summarize, we’ve had a restrictive policy for many years, and there’s been but a few exceptions where our officers made pursuit,” Shields said. “But a concern to me is we’ve had some instances where our officers were rightfully pursuing (suspects). They’re in line with state law. They’re in line with (department) policy, but the pursuit itself is just not essential, not given the risk/reward that goes with engaging in a pursuit. I just feel as though we need to step back and really make the policy even more restrictive. By that I mean allowing for a select number of highly trained to chase at all. I would rather err on the side of safety even if it does mean temporarily not being as active in a space that I feel we need to be.”
Shields spoke at a news conference at police headquarters in downtown Atlanta Jan. 3 after an internal email she sent to her employees was leaked and posted on the Facebook group Concerned Citizens United’s webpage by one of its leaders, Amber Connor, earlier in the day.
Most of the residents who commented on the email were upset with the decision.
“THIS IS LITERALLY INSANE! Everyone’s safety is now at risk and in complete danger!” wrote Mauricio Castro.
Kristin Boggs added, “This is a pass to commit any crime one wishes to commit.”
Though Shields said she’s thought about the policy change for months, it comes nearly a month after two men died in a southwest Atlanta wreck in which their vehicle was hit by a car driven by two suspects who ran a red light while being chased by police at high speeds.
Also, the policy change occurred just three days after a car crash involving a stolen car resulted in the death of one driver, and the department is looking into whether or not one of its patrol cars played a role in the wreck.
According to an police news release, on Dec. 31, a stolen 2006 Dodge Charger ran a red light at the intersection of Joseph Lowery E. Boulevard and Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, hitting a 2020 Toyota Corolla. The Corolla’s driver died from injuries sustained in the wreck. The Charger’s driver and passenger fled the scene and remain at large.
Shields said the department has been working for the past year with the Georgia State Patrol on training “a handful of officers … on how they do their pit maneuver, to get an emergency vehicle driving course, expanded training for them.”
“That unit has been very effective,” she said. “They’ve done the job safely and effectively, but what I would say is we need to take that training to even another level to allow that unit to continue down the road of (future) engagements.”
Shields said another reason for the no-chase policy is the repeat offender issue with the Fulton County justice system, where in the past some judges have released suspects with criminal records/convictions on low or no bond.
“That is absolutely part of my thought process,” she said. “If nothing is happening to the individuals when we’re locking them up, and yet we’re absorbing this level of risk and liability, that is just not a good business model. I would rather us put more emphasis on our investigative techniques. Get a warrant, get fugitives (arrested) at 4 in the morning.”
In her email, Shields also blamed the county’s justice system.
“At this point and time,” she wrote, “the department is assuming an enormous amount of risk to the safety of officer and the public for each pursuit, knowing that the judicial system is largely unresponsive to the action of the defendants.”
When asked by a reporter if the policy change will give criminals more confidence they can more easily break laws, Shields said the department actually has had more success with arrests in non-chase situations.
“We have, I would argue, one of the premier fugitive units in the country,” she said. “We have a criminal intelligence unit that does phenomenal work. We continually arrest people, violent offenders, through our investigative efforts. What I will also say to you is our APEX (Atlanta Proactive Enforcement and Interdiction) unit, which is our primary tactical unit day in and day out, focuses on getting guns off the street and does a fantastic job. In conversing with them, they don’t pursue. So somehow they’re still getting these benchmarks of success without needing vehicle pursuits.”
Shields added that she doesn’t want anyone’s lives risked, whether it’s an officer or a resident, by a vehicle pursuit.
“When (a suspect steals a car with) the child … in the back seat (while) the grandmother or the mother went into the store to get a loaf of bread,” she said, “and they didn’t make it because some knucklehead flew through an intersection at 90 miles an hour, it scarred me.”