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Are high-speed police chases worth the risk?

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Courtesy WHDH via AP

(Read caption) This aerial image made from a helicopter video provided by WHDH shows several officers pummeling Richard Simone, who had exited his vehicle and kneeled on the ground after a high-speed police pursuit, in Nashua, N.H., on Wednesday, May 11, 2016. The chase went through several towns before ending in Nashua.

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An hour-long police chase through New England and the violent arrest that followed highlighted a practice that, while legal and sometimes necessary, can also cause severe collateral damage to both people and property.

On Wednesday afternoon, 50-year-old Richard Simone refused to pull over for Holden, Mass. police who said Mr. Simone was wanted for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, larceny, and failure to stop for police, according to the Associated Press. 

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Simone led local officers and state police on a chase from Holden through central Massachusetts, sometimes topping 100 miles per hour, before finally stopping in a residential area in Nashua, N.H. where he parked his truck, exited the vehicle, and knelt on the ground in apparent surrender.

Law enforcement officers then converged on him, at which point video captured by a WHDH news helicopter caught police beating Simone while he was on the ground, before taking him away in custody.

Simone's treatment, which his sister called "shocking" and "disturbing," again brings up issues of excessive force by police and the often-beneficial impact video evidence can have on law enforcement. While he drove erratically and crashed once during his 50-mile pursuit, the chase again calls into question the merits of often-dangerous high-speed chases and the potential fallout for civilian bystanders weighed against their benefit to law enforcement.

In response to footage of the beating, New Hampshire’s attorney general and the Massachusetts State Police both announced investigations regarding the use of force in the incident and whether "it was appropriate under the law," New Hampshire senior assistant attorney general Jeffery Strelzin told The Boston Globe.

The apparent violence as the suspect "appeared to be surrendering was significant," Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, told The Globe, adding that he expects an investigation "to determine whether the force used was reasonable and proportional."

Simone's treatment echoes other recent cases of police violence after apprehending a suspect, such as Francis Pusok, who this past year evaded police via car, foot, and horse until he was apprehended. Mr. Pusok was then Tased and beaten by police, an incident similarly captured on video by a KNBC news helicopter. San Bernardino County approved a $650,000 settlement for the case. 

While the force employed raises questions, the entire sequence of events leading to Simone’s arrest also brings up the practicality of high-speed police pursuits. They are certainly legal, and police even have the authority to risk suspects' "serious injury or death" in order to end a chase. Without them, many police say their ability to enforce public safety would be at risk, since offenders might believe they could easily evade law enforcement.

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But such high-speed pursuits bring high risk. "A pursuit is probably the most unique and dangerous job law enforcement can do," Tulsa Police Maj. Travis Yates, an expert on police driving safety, told USA Today. Chases have killed thousands of people in recent decades, sometimes due to cops' perceived "need to 'win' and make the arrest," more than legal or public safety concerns.

Proponents of allowing such chases say that police should be able to use their judgement when attempting to enforce the law. If they were not allowed to pursue suspects in such situations, "everybody would take off," and “Nobody would stop," one Western New York law enforcement official told The Buffalo News.

Data recorded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that police pursuits have killed nearly one person per day between 1979 and 2013, with a total of 11,506 pursuit-related deaths occurring in that time span. And while the majority of those fatalities were suspects driving away, at least one fifth were bystanders. 

In most cases, refusal to stop for police results from violations that do not necessarily warrant risky pursuits. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conducted a survey finding that 91 percent of chases result from non-violent crimes including traffic violations and non-violent felonies or misdemeanors.

Fewer than 9 percent of chases are initiated due to a driver's possible connection to a violent felony, according to the IACP, while around 15 percent involve drivers believed to be intoxicated – situations that could quickly get out of hand for police and nearby motorists.