AUSTIN -- Several high-profile Austin police shootings in recent years have raised questions about a frequent, but sometimes dangerous -- and deadly police tactic: Pursuing fleeing suspects on foot.
On average, Austin police give chase twice a day. In an analysis by the KVUE Defenders and the Austin American-Statesman, of the city's 27 police shootings in five years, eight – about 30 percent -- started with a foot pursuit.
"Criminals aren't dumb,” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said. “They know what they can and can't get away with. If they feel, or we have a posture where we won't chase people based on the totality of a circumstance, it truly is an invitation to chaos."
Austin is one of only a few cities nationally to have a foot pursuit policy – developed soon after the shooting death of Kevin Alexander Brown by Sgt. Michael Olsen. That shooting led Police Chief Art Acevedo to fire Olsen, and it cost the city $1 million to settle a civil lawsuit with the city.
In general, Austin’s foot pursuit policy lets officers decide for themselves when to chase.
But it does set parameters.
Officers are expected to "act reasonably based on the totality of the circumstances."
Officers may give chase if the officer "believes the suspect is about to engage in, is engaging in, or has engaged in criminal activity."
The policy does not distinguish between felonies or misdemeanors, or violent or non-violent crimes. The result: officers sometimes chased dangerous suspects who just assaulted someone, but they also chased suspects after relatively minor crimes.
Last year, Austin police officer Eric Copeland shot and killed Ahmede Bradley, who had a lengthy criminal history, after a traffic stop for loud music. Bradley took off on foot, and when Copeland caught up to him, the two got into a struggle in which police have said Bradley tried to choke Copeland with his radio cord. Copeland shot him three times in the chest. A Travis county grand jury recently declined to indict him on any charge.
"Write the license plate, describe the car, and just keep going,” said Angela Orr, Bradley’s mother. “If he would have done that, I know Ahmede would be alive today."
In July, another foot chase ended with a deadly shooting. Veteran Detective Charles Kleinart ran after Larry Jackson after he attempted to enter a closed bank in Central Austin that had recently been robbed. Police say the two fought. Detective Kleinart says he accidently shot Jackson in the back of the neck.
That case remains under investigation.
"The only time you should really be in a situation of chasing somebody is when that person is clearly posing a danger to other people,” said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
In addition to the shootings, the KVUE Defenders and American-Statesman investigation found that officers took part in 2,121 foot chases in three years. During those chases, 440 suspects -- or about one in five -- were injured. But officers are frequently hurt in foot pursuits, too -- more than 150 officers within three years.
Officer Jared Ralstron was badly injured last year after a foot chase. Only now has he returned to work -- with visible scars.
"Bad guys are going to keep getting away if you aren't going to hold them responsible for their actions," Ralston said.
Harrington and other civil rights advocates want a tougher, tighter policy -- to protect both officers and suspects. They say officers should be more conservative in deciding when to give chase. By comparison, some other cities, like Detroit, won't let a officer chase without backup.
Acevedo said that he will keep the current rules -- with no change.
"I think it is a good policy, and I think it is a policy we are proud of, and it is a policy that we will continue to monitor to ensure there is adherance to it,” Acevedo said.