The Perils of Pursuit

Just last week, one of my USCCA colleagues discussed the issue of whether or not it is advisable for a civilian who is legally carrying a firearm to intervene in a potentially threatening situation where he/she is not yet involved.

In “You Are Not a Cop,” writer Rick Sapp pointed out that even though it’s natural for most people to want to help, and even though it may be arguably legal to come to someone else’s aid, you have no obligation to do so. He also detailed some of the potential pitfalls. Becoming involved in a situation involving a threat to a third party is up to you—it’s not an easy call.

But regardless of whether you are defending yourself or someone else, there is one thing that you should generally avoid: pursuing a fleeing suspect. Police officers can chase bad guys. But you and I can’t, or at least we shouldn’t…because if you give chase, you become the aggressor. It’s a common law principle of self-defense that, once the threat ceases, our ability to employ deadly force stops.

An incident that occurred on Sunday, March 13th illustrates what can happen when someone, even a cop, decides to chase after an offender. In this particular case, according to the AP (March 17, 2016) report:

“An off-duty suburban Dallas police officer who fatally shot a 16-year-old and wounded another juvenile was arrested Wednesday on charges of murder and aggravated assault…” [Emphasis ours]

“The trouble began when [Officer] Ken Johnson, 35, witnessed two juveniles allegedly burglarizing a vehicle in the officer’s apartment complex parking lot. After, Johnson gave chase [on foot], as the suspects fled the scene…”

It was then that the two suspects “hopped into one of their own vehicles…After a brief chase, the teenagers’ vehicle spun out of control and led to an altercation that ended with the shooting. All of the events in question occurred while Johnson was off-duty.”

Addison Police Chief Paul Spencer added that department policies “do not allow off-duty officers to chase suspects in their own vehicles.”

The details of the actual shooting are being held close to the vest. We don’t even know if the suspects were armed. But even though he was a cop, it appears that Officer Johnson’s decision to unnecessarily pursue the suspects, while off-duty, will likely be a big part of the prosecutor’s case.

Like most self-defense trainers, I always strongly warn civilian students that chasing after perpetrators is a really bad idea. But is there ANY circumstance in which pursuit might be seen as “reasonable” by a jury?

Sure. Suppose a woman is screaming, “My baby! He’s got my baby!” Well, that would most likely qualify, because there is an obvious imminent threat—in this case to a defenseless baby.

However, if the woman were yelling that someone had just grabbed her purse, even if I saw the thief running away with the purse clearly visible in his hands, I would not go after him. This actually happened to me, and I simply let the woman use my cell phone to call the police.

Even if it’s your stuff, if you escalate a property theft into a lethal confrontation, it will likely hurt you in court. No matter what you think your state allows in defense of property, juries hate dead people over “things.”

Be smart. Once the threat is over, don’t pursue offenders; call 911.