In late March, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was fatally shot by Chicago police officers at the end of a foot chase. Police said body camera footage shows Toledo holding a gun in his right hand, but it vanishes from sight as he turns toward the officer and begins to raise his hands as he’s shot. A gun was later found behind a fence a few feet from where Toledo was killed.
Two days later, Anthony Alvarez, 22, was fatally shot by an officer – 10 miles from where Toledo was killed – after he ran from police. Chicago police say he was armed during the case, and surveillance footage shows him dropping what appeared to be a gun onto the grass nearby as he was shot by an officer.
The killings of the two young people by officers in Chicago at the end of a foot chase has pushed the city’s mayor to call on the police department to implement a new foot pursuit policy. But some experts say a policy might not have changed the outcome of the incidents since both individuals were seen holding guns and running from cops before they were shot.
High-stakes foot pursuits by police, which often involve officers chasing suspects without back-up officers, have become a controversial issue across the nation in recent years.
Civic leaders and criminal justice professionals argue that the adrenaline-induced pursuits often end in excessive, sometimes deadly uses of force by police, and clear policies can help lower the number of police shootings. But banning foot pursuits entirely is not realistic, according to policing leaders and experts, especially when the fleeing suspect is armed with a gun and poses a risk to public safety.
The heart of the question is whether anyone has the right to flee police when approached by an officer to be questioned, detained or arrested – and whether police should stop attempting to detain or arrest people who run.
“To say that officers should never engage in a foot pursuit is too extreme,” said Charles Ramsey, former DC police chief and a CNN law enforcement analyst. “There are going to be incidents where it’s in the best interest of public safety that police try to take this person into custody. When you have a situation where a person has been involved in a shooting or some other type of crime, do you really want to tell officers to never chase?”
Cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Portland, have implemented their own foot pursuit policies, with each one varying from agency to agency. The policies offer specific guidance as to when an officer should or should not pursue someone on foot and provide options to cops other than chasing and arresting a suspect.
Before the two shootings of Toledo and Alvarez in Chicago, a Justice Department probe of the police department determined in 2017 that foot chases are “inherently dangerous” to the fleeing person, police officers and the public – a warning that has echoed in agencies that put such policies in place.
In the case of Toledo, Chicago police responded to a ShotSpotter notification, a gunshot detection system that alerts officers to gunfire almost immediately. The responding officers were informed that eight shots had been fired, according to police radio traffic released by authorities, and encountered Toledo fleeing in an alley before chasing him on foot.
The city is currently gripped by a federal consent decree that took effect in March 2019, just a month before Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office, mandating sustainable reform of the agency.
The two recent deadly shootings sparked outrage and protests in Chicago, with community members demanding changes to the Chicago Police Department’s practices and policies, and prompted Lightfoot to announce last month the city’s police department must implement a foot pursuit policy by the summer.
In 2000, the Supreme Court determined in the Illinois v. Wardlow case, which resulted from an incident in Chicago, that if a person runs unprovoked from police in a “high crime area,” officers are justified in stopping them. The question in the case was whether officers violated the Constitution by chasing and stopping a man who fled from police in an area known for “heavy narcotics trafficking.”
Officers often use the foot pursuit tactic to make a Terry Stop, an investigatory street stop laid out in a 1968 US Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio, requiring there be “specific and articulable facts” that an individual is armed and engaged in a crime.
“What that has done is it has encouraged officers to hope for, perhaps even provoke, flight because then they would have the authority to stop someone, even if they would not have had authority to stop if the person had just stood there looking at them,” said Christy Lopez, a Georgetown University law professor who led the Justice Department’s investigation of the Chicago Police Department.
The problem is that using this tactic to stop someone requires a foot pursuit, which is an inherently dangerous method, according to Lopez.
“We found in Chicago that cops were driving up on groups of people, hoping to provoke flight so they would have an excuse to chase and entertain,” she said. “The problem is that people who are doing absolutely nothing wrong flee from police all the time.”
Chicago has ‘long known’ about the need for a foot pursuit policy, expert says
In 2015, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation into the Chicago Police Department after the police killing of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager.
The department released its findings just over a year later, revealing that the agency fostered a “pattern of unlawful conduct” and a “systemic inability to proactively identify areas for improvement,” according to the report.
The probe found many incidents in which Chicago cops chased people and shot who posed “no immediate threat to officers or the public,” violating their constitutional rights. Investigators determined that the agency’s practice of unreasonable force includes officers pursuing people on foot without having any verifiable belief that they had committed a crime.
“In these cases, the act of fleeing alone was sufficient to trigger a pursuit ending in gunfire, sometimes fatal,” the report states. It also calls foot pursuits inherently dangerous because officers “may experience fatigue or an adrenaline rush that compromises their ability to control a suspect they capture, to fire their weapons accurately, and even to make sound judgments.”
Community members and civil leaders have called for a foot pursuit policy in Chicago for several years, which only accelerated since the DOJ report and the consent decree took effect. Lightfoot, however, has not taken up the issue in a significant manner until the two fatal shootings of Alvarez and Toledo incited public outrage.
A spokesperson for the mayor told CNN that the issue has been put off because the consent decree required that the independent monitor review the Chicago police department’s foot pursuit data and make a recommendation on whether or not the agency should adopt a policy, which was put forward on March 5.
“That said, the Mayor’s intention was only to convey how many other items which fall under the consent decree have been undergoing significant and meaningful reforms during her tenure, including but not limited to officer training, community policing, and officer wellness,” the spokesperson said.
“I cannot imagine a monitor prohibiting someone from adopting a foot pursuit policy,” Lopez, the Georgetown law professor, said. “Especially here, given the known issues Chicago PD has had with foot pursuits.”
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who has studied the city’s police department, said it’s “inexcusable” that the agency doesn’t have a foot pursuit policy. “It’s a lack of will,” he said. “There’s nothing politically, legally or anything else to stop the administration or police department from implementing a policy.”
According to Futterman, the city has “long known about the need” for a policy and is only now working to put one in place due to the killings of Toledo and Alvarez.
Policy will ‘set parameters’ on when and how cops pursue, mayor’s office says
Chicago’s process for drafting a foot pursuit policy will involve internal focus groups that will provide feedback from officers and a plan to get input from the community and public. The policy will be sent to the independent monitor that oversees the consent decree and once it’s finalized, the agency will start training officers on the policy, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said during a late April news conference.
“All of that is happening concurrently because this is actually very timely, given the current circumstances of two police involved shooting as a result of foot pursuits,” Brown said. “We are obviously proceeding with a sense of urgency as it relates to foot pursuit policies. And to highlight, obviously, the dangers not only to officers – the general public, and offenders fleeing.”
Chicago is reviewing other foot pursuit policies across the country and departments under a consent decree to “get the best standard, the best practice” for its policy, Brown said.
A spokesperson from the mayor’s office said the policy will ultimately “set parameters around when, why, and how” officers pursue a potential suspect on foot and the considerations officers should make when deciding to initiate a foot pursuit. “The exact nature of the policy and how it will govern an officer’s actions is still underway,” the statement says.
Since January 2019, the consent decree required the department to track and analyze all foot chase incidents, even if they did not end in use of force. The most recent Independent Monitor report, which was released last month, found that roughly 30% of 1,301 foot pursuits that took place in the city from March to December of 2020 resulted in the use of force. Chicago officers engage in an average of seven foot pursuits per day, according to the report.
There are also significant racial disparities in Chicago police encounters, with Black residents accounting for 77% of all use of force incidents in 2019, although they make up 29.6% of the city’s population, the report says.
Independent Monitor Maggie Hickey, who was appointed by a federal judge, declined to comment on the status of the policy due to a contract agreement.
Cities with foot pursuit policies see less shootings, but don’t address armed suspects
Many police departments across the country have developed foot pursuit policies that are more restrictive than the Supreme Court law by saying that officers can’t pursue someone just because they flee from police in a “high-crime” area. Cities such as Baltimore, Austin, Philadelphia, Portland, Tucson and Las Vegas, have implemented policies, and some did so under a consent decree.
“When the adrenaline goes up in a foot pursuit, officers get scared and angry so there’s an excessive use of force at the end of the pursuit,” said Lopez, the Georgetown law professor. “This culture builds up around punishing people at the end of the pursuit if they make you chase them.”
The trade-off in assessing the risk versus benefit of chasing someone is a relatively new issue for police departments, according to Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
Wexler, who previously held positions with the Boston Police Department, calls this a “balancing act” for police chiefs and part of a national discussion about how the public wants police to act.
“On the one hand, you want cops to be safe and have guidelines on when they can pursue,” Wexler said. “On the other hand, if we decide to discourage foot pursuits, there is a danger to that too. If it’s something relatively minor, you don’t want an officer to pursue, but what if it’s someone who committed a serious crime?”
Some policies limit pursuits for low level offenses like violating curfew, a citation or a non-arrestable violation. But they don’t address the circumstances in incidents where the suspect is running from the police while armed with a gun, according to Lopez.
Roberto Villaseñor, former chief of the Tucson Police Department who was a member of former President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, said he doesn’t know whether a Chicago foot pursuit policy would have prevented Toledo or Alvarez from being killed by officers.
“A shots fired call ‘ups the ante’ and a person with a gun running from a shots fired call says this could be a threat to the community that justifies a foot pursuit, so I don’t know if a policy would have changed that,” Villaseñor said.
Villaseñor, who is a member of the Baltimore Consent Decree Monitoring Team, said he helped rewrite the department’s use of force policy that included one of the most progressive foot pursuit policies to date.
Under the policy’s directives, Baltimore cops can only engage in pursuits when there is reasonable suspicion that the person “has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime” – the defined requirements for making a Terry Stop – and the need to detain “outweighs the threat to safety posed by the pursuit.” These factors have to be continuously re-evaluated by cops in real time as the chase ensues, the policy says.
Baltimore, like other cities that have a foot pursuit policy, gives officers alternatives to foot pursuits such as containing the area, calling for back-up, and relying on surveillance or air support. Supervisors who are notified about a foot pursuit are responsible for directing resources, and they have the power to call off the chase if the circumstances don’t meet the standard.
According to CNN law enforcement analyst Charles Ramsey, foot pursuit policies should be standard in police agencies, but it’s difficult to say whether a policy would prevent fatal shootings at the end of a foot chase.
A policy gives officers pause, says Ramsey, to decide whether a foot pursuit is the best course of action by considering the danger to the public if the suspect escapes, whether they are armed, and the seriousness of the offense.
Policing experts like Von Kliem, a former police officer and director of consulting division for the Force Science Institute, say that foot pursuit policies put too heavy a burden on police officers who are acting in the heat of the moment by asking them to weigh various factors to determine the seriousness of the crime before deciding to chase someone.
“Unfortunately, a lot of these policies are trickling down to be placed on an individual officer’s back where they have to consider the importance of the crime before they enforce it,” said Kliem. “That’s not an officer’s job, that’s what legislators do when they characterize something as a felony or misdemeanor.”
While he does not support banning foot pursuits, Kliem said it would be easier to tell cops not to chase at all if the goal is to lower the number of shootings and reduce uses of force at the end of a pursuit.
“You can’t tie one arm behind an officer’s back by telling them to chase only if the underlying offense is serious enough, and leave that up to the cop to decide,” he said. “Then if the cop gets it wrong, they might be prosecuted.”