Ethical Issues in Police Pursuits

 Research questions

The study presents in this paper seeks to explore ethical issues primarily, and thus assumes a qualitative approach. However, the fatalities in the event of police pursuits also suggest a quantitative data despite the main focus on ethics in criminal justice. The research questions state below will act as a guideline framework which help the audience to explore the topic.

What are the persistent themes for which different existing research identify in the domain of criminal justice?

What behavior is observed in existing research regarding the attitude of police officers while pursuing suspects and criminals

What are the observable ethical morals desired in public regarding police acts in the attempts to apprehend criminals

What is the perspective of offenders regarding pursuit and what observable ethical, moral theories pose a challenge in the event of pursuit?

Contemporary statistics regarding police pursuit

High-speed pursuit of suspected criminals by police is controversial and require immediate apprehension of criminals and the potential risks and represents a balance between the risk to the pursuing police officer and the general public.

The number of deaths each year far exceeds that due to any other police activity.

A 1997 national survey of 436 police agencies showed that 48% had revised their pursuit policies within the previous two years, with 87% placing more restrictions on police pursuits (Rivara 2004). The number of pursuits annually ranged from none to 870, indicating substantial variation on how frequently police engage in pursuits. Case studies of more than 1200 pursuits in Miami, Florida, Omaha, Nebraska and Aiken, South Carolina found that pursuit related property damage occurred in 20%–40% of pursuits, and crashes resulting in injury in 12%–41% of all pursuits.

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Because of this high prevalence of motor vehicle crashes and injuries occurring during police pursuits, we sought to determine the number of fatal injuries annually in the United States related to pursuits, and the direct involvement of the individual in the pursuit to whom the fatal injury occurred. According to the study, approximately 300 lives are lost solely due to police pursuit crashes in the United States of America (Rivara 2004). The results stated above were obtained after the researcher analyzed crash data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). The researcher went ahead to evaluate the consistency of the data collected by FARS by comparing the crash data with the Crashworthiness Data System (CDS) reports. This data was collected during a nine-year period from the year 1994 to the year 2002, and the characteristics of the data collected remained consistent as stated by the comparative analysis carried out by the researcher. The study found that a third of innocent lives are lost to police pursuit crashes or careless driving either from fleeing suspects or the police. This significant number is reported to account for the 1 % of all vehicle-related deaths on an annual basis, and this can be attributed to the fact that 20-40% of all pursuits ended in a crash (Rivara, 2004).

Previous research focus area in quantitative approaches

There is adequate literature regarding the impacts, perceptions, and attitudes of police pursuits in the United States of America. However, limited research is in existence regarding the issue of ethical considerations of moral aspects in the acts to apprehend criminals and suspects. It is clear that the research focuses on the impacts or rather the consequences of police pursuit which often results in criminal apprehension without fatalities. In other studies, the researchers focus on the effective policy considerations which restrict the use of police pursuit, a term that is also known as ‘hot pursuit.’ It is clear that most literature in this arena has identified the ongoing state and federal efforts to delineate special circumstances for which police pursuit is supposed to be used. Brewer and McGrath (1991) reviewed official police files and presented the results of a study of suspects who fled from the police in Adelaide, South Australia.

This research comprised the following profile of those who fled and showed that suspects were mostly male, were jobless or working at an unskilled job, and had been drinking. The criminal background of these law offenders was extensive but included mostly traffic, registration, and license violations. It was interesting to note that only 5% of those law violators had previous armed offenses (and only an average of .29 convictions). Brewer and McGrath raised several important research questions that related to a fleeing suspect’s level of desperation and experience. Their data supported conventional wisdom and suggested that those who fled from serious crimes took more risks than those who attempted to elude for other reasons.

Similarly, those who escaped were likely to be more experienced at running from the police than those who were caught. In 1995, the King County, Washington Police reviewed a sample of the criminal histories of those law violators who ran from officers during the years 1992 to 1995 and were immediately caught (Black, 1995). In a two-page memorandum, the criminal records of 110 suspects were summarized. ‘Only 11.8% of arrested suspects had fewer than three prior arrests, whereas 67.3% had more than three felony arrests. The profile that emerges is that those arrested in pursuits are hardcore criminals’ (Black, 1995, p. 1) Unfortunately, these data did not differentiate property crimes from violent crimes, but they did contradict the data reported in the South Australia study and raised the need to conduct further research about the criminal background of those who fled the police


Consequentialism is a theory states that the moral quality of an action is entirely dependent on its consequences (Callender, 2010). It is a class of a set of normative moral theories which seek to explore how an individual ought to act in an attempt to remain morally right. In this theory, consequences matter most and are the focal point of determining if an action is seen as moral. Typically, the theory suggests that those actions which lead to desired consequences to the receiver of an action are considered morally right (Callender, 2010). The theory is non-prescriptive because the moral quality of an action is not explicitly defined by a set of rules or written law edicts but rather comes from the consequences of the action. In this context, existing literature implies that the department of criminal justice acts in the best interests of the citizen and thus acts in the realization of those consequences which elicit desirable consequences by defending citizens from criminals (Alpert & Lum, 2014). However, due to the ambiguous application of the theory if consequentialism, more questions arise when fatalities are encountered during police pursuits.

Deontology theory

Amongst normative theories, the above-stated theory bears an antonymous definition to the morality of actions compared to the prior discussed theory above. While consequentialism is non-prescriptive, the deontology theory is prescriptive, and the moral quality of an action is determined by a set of pre-established rules (Quong, 2018). Existing study in moral ethics have shown that deontology theory is focused on the action being performed and per se, the moral obligation of the act depends entirely on a set of rules which are deemed as right or wrong. In this context, an action might be regarded as morally incorrect even if the associated consequences are beneficial to the wellbeing of humankind. Immanuel Kant’s normative theory revolves around deontology theory in the sense that an individual ought to act dutifully for them to be morally right (Quong, 2018). His theory has been critiqued by other scholars especially in the arena of criminal justice.


Hedonistic classical philosophers defined this theory under consequentialism to determine further what consequences are desired in the realm of good and bad. It is imperative to note that hedonistic utilitarianism is entirely based on consequences and per se is considered to be a non-prescriptive moral theory (Mulgan, 2012). However, pain and pleasure are used to determine the morality of an action if the action maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Early philosophers agreed that actions should be measured regarding happiness or the pleasure they produce to gauge their moral quality. Just like consequentialism, this theory does not focus on the intentions of the actions or rather the motives behind the action being performed. The theory was considered utilitarianism since hedonistic utilitarian philosophers collectively agreed that a moral theory should apply to everyone (Mulgan, 2012). Therefore a basic application of the theory identified the primal desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain as an intuitive common quest for humanity which can be achieved through consequences. Extant research identifies a two-faced coin application of this theory in the arena of criminal justice.

Virtual theory

The above discussed moral theories are focused on actions and consequences as well as a defined set of rules for which in both actions and consequences are said to be good or bad. The virtual theory, however, is a reconstruction of the modern day thoughts of the Greek’s classical philosopher Aristotle regarding ethical thinking. Philosophical texts indicate that Aristotle’s thoughts regarding ethical thinking and morality are focused on virtues or rather characters (Campbell, 2013). In essence, these characters define humanity in the context of being agents of change rather than depending entirely on actions and consequences. Aristotle believed that humankind should live according to reason and the primary reason to live is to flourish persistently through the application of certain actions which are ingrained in an individual’s character (Campbell, 2013). Therefore, according to Aristotle humankind should live a life that is fulfilling by possessing those characters which are good.

Method and Analysis

The study strictly adhered to a qualitative approach and as such a sample of seven sources was chosen dating back from 1992 to 2004 whose data collection involved the utilization of federal statistical bodies. Data collection was thus carried out through the examination of secondary sources, and it is imperative to mention that due to the qualitative nature of data in consideration, the sources remained relevant even when they dated back to ’90s. The considerable and manageable sample size was also chosen to explore the material of the sources deeply and as such identify consistent ethical issues in the arena of criminal justice. The sources were carefully examined through content analysis technique that enabled the researcher to identify consistent themes which relate to the existing moral theories. Communication trends and patterns in the sources were observed and as such the section below is the themes which were found to be consistent regarding the ethical, moral obligation of a police pursuit.

Officers perspective (Kantian deontology theory of duty)

Falcone (1994), observed that the attitudes of police officers regarding the restriction policies that limited the possibilities of apprehending eluding suspects were negative as officers implied that it would only increase the attempts for suspects and criminals to elude. A significant percentage of the officers were reported to pursue offenders in the effort to act dutifully in pertinence to a set of pre-established rules which in this case determine the moral value of the acts performed. In this case, the officers are seen to appraise the act into consideration without putting too much thought on the benefits or the risks associated with hot pursuit. Content analysis of the sources showed that the police officers perspective was strongly ingrained in the execution of those duties which were previously stated as a right in their job description.

Offender’s perspective (Consequentialism and utilitarianism)

In this case, a contradicting case of consequentialism is identified in unique and reported issues which offenders deemed necessary to engage in the act of eluding an arrest. In one of the incidences noted, an offender was spotted by the police shoplifting, and the suspect took on the heel instead of submitting to the authority. Her wife had just given birth when the offender was broke and thus used any means possible to provide for the family. The offender, in this case, felt that the consequences of the actions mattered and thus sought to shoplifting provided it fed his family. Even though the ultimate consequence of the act is to provide for a family that depended on him, the course of action cannot be agreeably said to be morally upright. On the same note, in some isolated cases, the offenders were afraid of being chased by the police since they had previously encountered such an experience (DUNHAM, ALPERT, KENNY, & CROMWELL, 1998). A simple stop by a police officer scared them, and they sought to run for their freedom. This is a case of utilitarianism where a suspect considers to act in the best interest to minimize pain and maximize pleasure.

Public perspective

This theme included various attitudes of the public towards police pursuit of eluded criminals and suspects. Amongst the public perspective, it was noted that most individuals felt that most police officers used proper judgment in determining whether to embark on a high-speed pursuit. Consequently, content analysis of the sources showed that more than 60% of the public was noted to agree that pursuit should only be carried if a suspect or criminal is deemed dangerous to the society. In this context, the public perspective objected the use of pursuit to apprehend minor offenses (MacDonald & Alpert, 1998). It is clear that the public exhibited a sense of justice and prudence while responding to researchers. Their answers implied the execution a spontaneous action which best suited a given circumstance and as thus the moral aspect of being virtuous was clear.


As stated earlier in the preceding sections, the study presents above is intended to bridge the gap in the literature regarding police pursuit and the moral obligations in the area of criminal justice. The themes identified in the previous section try to explore the moral values in different perspective including the public’s, officers’ and offenders’ point of view. As such the moral value of police pursuit cannot be seen as consistent throughout the three themes, and which suggests scholars to explore more into this field in an attempt to understand humanity’s response toward a controversial policy. In this context, the researchers believe that while criminal justice might require the use of police might in the pursuit of suspects and criminals, the extent to which the criminal justice department goes to apprehend criminals and suspects is questionable when fatalities are experienced.


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Ethical Issues in Police Pursuits. (2021, Apr 23). Retrieved from

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