POLICE SHOULD avoid high-speed chases unless the apprehension of a fleeing vehicle outweighs the danger of the chase itself. This is official policy, written right into the manuals. In the Boston Police Department, officers are told to end their pursuit unless a suspect has committed a violent felony or is operating so erratically that the public is already being placed at immediate risk.
The Boston Police and State Police seem to have overreacted Wednesday when they engaged in a high-speed pursuit that ended with the shooting death of Mark McMullen, 44. The rationale was thin, especially in light of what often happens: About 360 people die each year in the United States as a result of police chases. About one-third of these deaths involve innocent third parties. And about 35 percent of high-speed police chases end in crashes.
Boston Police officials say officers observed McMullen arguing with a woman in Roxbury and striking her with his vehicle as she exited. She wasn’t seriously injured. That raises legitimate questions about whether the chase should have been initiated in the first place. The pursuit went bad almost from the start, when the suspect struck two passenger vehicles on Route 93 southbound. It continued for miles along Route 3 at speeds exceeding 75 mph. The chase ended, according to police, when McMullen struck two police cruisers near the Exit 14 ramp in Rockland. One or possibly more Boston Police officers discharged their weapons, killing McMullen.
Was “pursuit termination,’’ as police call it, ever seriously considered in this case? If not, it should have been. The danger to hundreds of drivers in the path of the police chase appeared greater than the danger posed by the precipitating event in Roxbury. The State Police indicated in a statement that its shift commanders continually monitored “traffic, speeds, density of surrounding neighborhoods, and the severity of the underlying crime’’ throughout the chase. Such a statement satisfies that agency’s policy requirements. But it doesn’t satisfy a public left wondering why police would expose them to such dangers in the first place.
Following a fatal police shooting, some naive observers invariably ask why an officer didn’t shoot the suspect in the leg. They fail to appreciate the split-second decisions in shooting cases and training about the importance of aiming at large body mass. But vehicle pursuit is different. The Boston Police, for example, advise officers to maintain surveillance “at a discreet and safe distance’’ and identify the car and suspect for later apprehension. There’s more time to get it right.
On Wednesday, a rush of adrenaline seems to have replaced sound judgment.