The Atlanta Objective: Patrols and Pandering

At least three people are dead in the last month after vehicle chases by cops. If the goal for stepped-up street enforcement is a safer Atlanta, then I question whether more chases help or hurt.

Much of our behavior during the pandemic confounds easy analysis. Consider traffic to start.

America hit peak driving miles per year in February 2020. Collectively, we drove about 3.3 trillion miles in the 12-months prior. And then most of us started to stay home. The rolling 12-month average fell to 2.8 trillion miles, a 15 percent decline in a year, the largest drop by far in history. The pandemic wiped 20 years of traffic growth off the page.

But traffic fatalities rose by 8 percent overall. On the basis of miles driven per fatality, the rate increased 24 percent.

No one has an authoritative explanation why yet. I suspect it has to do with hospital bed availability. Ambulances diverted away from hospitals with full emergency rooms and ICUs may have delayed critical treatment for car crash victims. It’s a guess.

This kind of risk analysis applies to police when trying to decide if chasing a car is worth it. Fun fact: people get away from the cops about one time in six when they run for it. Most chases begin over minor traffic violations.

Most chases aren’t fatal. Enough kill people to question the practice.

Last year, the Atlanta Police Department banned high-speed chases, following a series of fatalities. Drivers fleeing police in stolen vehicles rammed into other cars, killing people who were wholly innocent. (I note in passing that most stolen cars are recovered.) The elevated risk of getting bystanders killed wasn’t worth chasing a car that had a better than 50 percent chance of being recovered later.

APD retains its no-chase policy unless pursuing someone involved in a violent felony or clearly placing someone at lethal risk, a spokesman said today.

Georgia State Patrol didn’t get that memo.

Over the last few weeks, the Georgia State Patrol has been engaged in a “collaborative effort” with the Atlanta Police Department, Fulton County Sheriff's Department and other agencies to reduce crime in Atlanta. Not violent crime, of course. That’s hard. But street racing is … crime.

GSP has been touting enforcement statistics. 1,065 stops on the weekend of April 12, with 30 pursuits. 765 stops on the weekend of April 26, with 27 pursuits.

One of those pursuits resulted in the death of 23-year-old Deterrius Minor and 22-year-old Devin Jones. Georgia State Patrol chased a car through Buckhead on this first weekend of stepped-up enforcement. The car crashed, killing both passengers. The driver, Kenneth Poole, survived. A couple of weeks later in April, a state trooper chased someone in DeKalb County over a seatbelt violation. The driver, Eugene Goodman, plowed into a car at a red light at Candler and McAfee, killing William Johnson.

But hey. The state patrol impounded more than 100 vehicles and made a couple dozen drug arrests. Certainly, that’s worth the death of three people who were not breaking the law at the time.

Here’s some local context. Georgia had 1,600 traffic fatalities last year, an increase of about 8 percent — about the same as the national average increase. The year before, the Georgia State Patrol responded to 777 traffic fatalities, about half of all the fatal accidents.

Troop C of the state patrol covers metro Atlanta. Only 29 of those traffic fatalities required Atlanta-area state patrol to respond. Right now, 20 weeks into 2021, the state patrol is itself at least somewhat responsible for about a tenth of the fatal traffic accidents it has to investigate in metro Atlanta.

State patrol policy requires troopers to make a “reasonable” effort to apprehend fleeing drivers, while exercising “prudent and sound judgment.”

So, I ask this question. At the rate the state patrol is going today, 20 to 40 people are going to die in car crashes after police chases over the next 12 months, with bystanders and passengers accounting for about half the dead. The homicide rate in Atlanta has risen by about 84 percent year over year — about 80 “excess” murders over the previous period. It’s not clear that car chases will reduce the homicide rate at all.

Given the cost in lives, what “reasonable” justification do we have to continue this practice?

We certainly have an unreasonable justification.

“People are just very frustrated and they want to see something done about it, so that’s what we’re doing,” Governor Brian Kemp told reporters Friday, after touring the “operation” in a helicopter like someone looking for packs of foragers after a hurricane instead of the city he drives through every day he goes to work at the capitol. “A lot of arrests. A lot of cars towed. Taking down a lot of people. A lot of chases. Very dangerous work,” he said.

It’s murderously stupid and counterproductive, born of aggressive ignorance of the actual effect. But if the goal is to look like politicians are “doing something,” then getting people killed in police chases is … well, it’s something. I suppose.