Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

New Orleans Police Department policy only allows officers to engage in vehicle pursuits  “when they have a reasonable suspicion that a fleeing suspect has committed or has attempted to commit a crime of violence” and that “pursuits for property offenses, misdemeanor offenses, traffic, or civil infractions are prohibited.”

According to the policy, which was implemented as part of the department’s federal consent decree, the restrictions are intended to “stress a balance between the importance of apprehending offenders and the high risk nature of vehicle pursuits.” 

But a report released late last month by NOPD on uses of force by officers in 2019 shows that of the 41 vehicle pursuits the department engaged in during that year, the majority of them were not for violent offenses. Seventeen of them were for traffic violations.

According to the report — an annual report required by the consent decree — 17 people were injured by vehicle pursuits in 2019, by far the most injuries since the 2014 report, the first one the department released. Of those 17, 11 were bystanders.

One chase, which originated with a stolen vehicle investigation, resulted in three deaths. Another, in response to alleged shoplifting, resulted in a multi-car crash that injured five people, including three bystanders. 

Under NOPD policy, suspicion of a crime of violence is a baseline condition that needs to be met in order for officers to engage in a vehicle pursuit, but it’s not the only one. Even if a crime of violence is suspected, an officer still must determine that the “escape of the subject would pose an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person,” in addition to receiving approval from a supervisor for the chase. 

The report provides a total number of incidents in which a use of force by an officer — including firearms discharges, uses of Tasers and takedowns — was deemed unjustified. It’s not clear how many of the chases are included in the tally, nor does the report provide an accounting of any disciplinary action taken against officers who engaged in them. A public records request for the information was pending as of Wednesday afternoon.  A spokesperson for the department did not respond to a request for comment.

NOPD policy defines “any vehicle pursuit resulting in death, serious physical injury, or injuries requiring hospitalization” as a level four use of force — the highest level there is. But whether or not vehicle pursuits that do not result in death or injury are considered a lower level use of force, or if a pursuit that violates NOPD policy would necessarily be characterized as an “unauthorized use of force,” is unclear. 

Despite there being over 20 reported vehicle pursuits for non-violent violations, the report found that there were only 13 total incidents of any kind — including those unrelated to vehicle pursuits — deemed to have at least one unjustified or unauthorized use of force in 2019.

At least one of those incidents, however, was a vehicle pursuit —  a chase resulting in a car crashing into Unity 1 Beauty Supply and Hair Salon in the Broadmoor neighborhood. In March 2019, several police cars pursued what they believed to be a stolen vehicle at speeds reaching nearly 80 miles per hour. After the car crashed into the salon, it exploded and was engulfed in flames, which soon spread to the building. The two teenage occupants of the car were killed, along with a woman who was getting her hair done at the salon. 

Following the incident, an internal investigation found that four of the officers had violated NOPD policy for pursuing a vehicle despite the fact that it was not suspected of being involved in a crime of violence. All four were fired, and two other officers were suspended.

The investigation also suggested a broader pattern of unauthorized vehicle pursuits by the officers, along with intentional efforts to hide those pursuits from supervisors and avoid scrutiny. 

It found that all the officers involved turned off their body-worn cameras when the pursuit was initiated, several officers turned off the in-car cameras, and none of the officers informed dispatch or their supervisors regarding the pursuit— all in violation of NOPD policy. In addition, an investigator “uncovered several other unauthorized pursuits in which the officers deactivated their in car cameras and continued to pursue vehicles without advising dispatch of their pursuits.” 

This led the investigator to determine that the officers “were engaging in a pattern and practice of purposeful violations of the pursuit policy.” In announcing disciplinary action against the officers, NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said that they had been a part of at least three other unauthorized pursuits in the previous weeks.

The recent report does not say how many of the vehicle pursuits listed went through the proper authorization process, or how many were discovered after the fact.  

Dave Lanser, an attorney who is representing the parents of one of the boys killed in the Unity 1 crash in a wrongful death suit against the NOPD and the city, called the vehicle pursuit data in the report “deeply disturbing.”

“NOPD policy on vehicle pursuits is clear: You cannot pursue someone unless they are suspected of committing a crime of violence,” Lanser said in a statement. “But hardly any of the violations in the report were violent crimes.”

Lanser said that the report pointed to a broad failure by the NOPD to oversee and discipline officers who violate the chase policy.

“Either NOPD is failing to train and supervise its officers or the officers know they will not suffer consequences for breaking policy,” he said. “Or both.”

A number of people have been critical of the department’s restrictions on car chases since they were enacted, including former Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro, and Police Association of New Orleans President Mike Glasser, who has said the policy is “going to have an unintended consequence of crippling our ability to provide public safety.

But Lanser rejected the idea that more high speed chases would be an effective crime reduction strategy.  

“The fact is that the NOPD’s failure to reign in its officers puts the public at risk and does nothing to reduce crime,” he said. “This reckless behavior will continue until the NOPD acknowledges and takes seriously the threat to public safety posed by its own officers.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...