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Fewer chases, but more crashes: SFPD collision rate is highest among California big cities

In the background, a white Ford truck is crashed into a bus stop and a retail building. In the foreground, a police officer, who has just exited her vehicle, approaches on foot.
An SFPD officer walks past the spot where a stolen Department of Public Works truck slammed into pedestrians during a police pursuit, injuring four people and killing one on May 23, 2023. | Source: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

San Francisco police pursuits are more likely to end in a collision than vehicle chases by any other major law enforcement agency in the state of California.

That’s according to a new analysis of data The Standard obtained from the California Highway Patrol on every law enforcement pursuit reported in California between 2018 and 2021.

The Standard analyzed the data ahead of the March 5 election, when voters will decide on Proposition E, a proposal by Mayor London Breed that would relax the rules around when San Francisco police are allowed to pursue suspects.

The Standard found that 41%—or 47 of the 115 pursuits initiated by the San Francisco Police Department in the four-year period—resulted in a collision. That was nearly twice the statewide average of 22% of pursuits resulting in collisions, and significantly higher than the collision rate for neighboring police departments in Oakland (26%) and San Jose (33%).

Of the 115 pursuits initiated by SFPD, 17 resulted in 20 different injury collisions, one of which resulted in a person being severely injured. Two people also died after SFPD began a chase: One person was a suspect and another was a bystander.

None of the 192 departments in California that initiated at least 50 pursuits during the period had a higher collision rate than SFPD did. But many of the agencies that initiated more pursuits than SFPD had, in turn, more collisions. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, initiated 860 pursuits that ended in collisions, 36% of their 2,365 total pursuits.

The analysis revealed that SFPD tended to chase suspects less often—and for more serious reasons—than other agencies. What’s more, SFPD did not catch most of the people they chased, with 61% of pursuits ending without an apprehension.

Emergency responders are at a street scene with a black car, police officers, and flashing lights under an overpass.
SFPD investigators search a Maserati that collided with a Muni bus during a pursuit that ended near Third and Bryant streets on Jan. 24. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

Breed put forward her measure so that officers will have more flexibility to chase people suspected of retail theft and other property crimes. Currently, SFPD is limited to chasing suspects of violent felonies, unless public safety is in immediate danger. Breed has said that police should be trusted to balance the need to apprehend criminals against the potential dangers posed by pursuits to public safety. But critics of the measure worry that the proposal will lead to more collisions. 

Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto, an opponent of Prop. E, said that the new data doesn’t bolster the argument that the city needs to engage in more police pursuits. The data reflects the reality that San Francisco is a particularly dangerous place to engage in pursuits because of its density and narrow streets in areas such as Chinatown, he said.

San Francisco is the second-most densely populated city in the nation.

“What I see that data showing is that we need to be smart in how we are deploying resources,” Benedicto said. “To just blanket increase pursuit flexibility with no other safeguards is dangerous.”

When asked whether she was concerned the proposal could lead to bystanders or officers being hurt, Breed said her measure would give the police the “ability to use good judgment.” Officers could chase a retail theft suspect, for instance, when the streets are empty at 3 a.m., she said.

“Our police officers are not stupid,” Breed said. “They know what they probably would need to do in order to make the right decision to ensure that the public is safe in any pursuit.”

Fewer chases, more serious reasons

SFPD engaged in pursuits far less often than many other departments in California, The Standard found. Eighty-four law enforcement agencies across the state, including branches of the California Highway Patrol, initiated more pursuits than the SFPD.

Other agencies also tended to initiate pursuits for less-serious offenses than SFPD.

Statewide, about half of pursuits are initiated over an infraction, such as speeding or improper license plates. Misdemeanors, including reckless driving and DUI, make up another 16%.

By comparison, 88% of the crimes SFPD officers cited as reasons for initiating their pursuit were felonies. (Officers did not list the reason for initiating 20 of the 115 pursuits in the data.) The top reasons SFPD officers initiated pursuits were robbery, burglary and assault with a deadly weapon.

Law enforcement has understood the dangers of pursuits for decades.

As long ago as 1978, San Francisco police introduced guidelines for “hot pursuits,” with the then-police chief saying the rules were essential to prevent serious collisions, according to press reports from the time.

Other cities, such as Boston, Detroit and Baltimore, have in recent years moved toward more restrictive police pursuit policies.

Currently, SFPD policy allows officers to pursue people who are suspected of violent felonies. Officers are told not to pursue people for nonviolent felonies, misdemeanor, property crimes or vehicle code violations, unless there is an immediate risk to public safety.

Two car crashes after an SFPD chase
Ciara Keegan was injured in a serious car crash, vehicle on left, when an armed robbery suspect, vehicle on right, fled San Francisco Police and led them on a chase that ended in West Oakland on December 7, 2023. | Source: Courtesy Black_cx via Reddit

When deciding whether to pursue a suspect, officers have to weigh numerous factors, such as speed, weather and traffic conditions.

Prop. E would let officers chase people suspected of all felonies—not just violent ones—as well as violent misdemeanors, while balancing the seriousness of the crime and likelihood of an arrest with the potential public safety risks.

Evan Sernoffsky, a San Francisco police spokesperson, said the department is focused on protecting public safety.

“Officers will always assess a suspect’s danger to public safety and the risks of a pursuit, even if the department’s policy changes for when a pursuit may be initiated,” Sernoffsky said.

He noted that the department’s pursuit rules extend “well beyond when a pursuit may be initiated.” They also require a supervisor to control the pursuit and decide whether one should be brought to an end.

Tracy McCray, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, said Breed’s measure would empower officers to engage in police pursuits that they might otherwise hesitate on out of fear that they could be punished by the Police Commission for violating the current rules. 

If officers don’t feel confident that they have the discretion to pursue suspects, it hampers the department’s ability to catch criminals, according to McCray.

“The alternative is everybody could just go and get [robbed] all over the place and no one would ever chase anyone,” McCray said.

McCray said San Francisco’s dense layout makes it harder to pursue suspects than other jurisdictions that have wider, more open streets.

“You’re always thinking about that because you can turn the corner, and there’s a lot of people there,” she said.

What happens when SFPD pursues

McCray said that there are three main goals to each police pursuit: Catch the perpetrator, avoid property damage and make sure nobody gets hurt.

In San Francisco, police do not catch their perp the majority of the time. From 2018 to 2021, the department apprehended 39% of suspects they initiated a pursuit for, according to the data. Statewide, law enforcement officers apprehended 56% of the suspects they pursued.

Only Oakland had a worse apprehension rate than San Francisco among the major law enforcement agencies in California’s 10 largest cities.

The most common reason SFPD terminated a pursuit was because officers decided to abort the chase, which happened in 36 pursuits, or 32% of incidents. That’s higher than the 27% statewide pursuit abort rate. SFPD ended 23% of pursuits with a forcible stop, its second most-common terminating reason. Statewide, 16% of pursuits ended with a forcible stop.

The third and fourth most common reasons an SFPD pursuit ended was because the suspect abandoned their vehicle and fled on foot (15%) and the suspect vehicle got into a collision (15%).

Meanwhile, SFPD documented 54 collisions that damaged property during 34 separate pursuits, with multiple collisions happening during the same pursuit in some cases, The Standard found. That rate of about 47 property damage collisions for every 100 pursuits is about 2½ times the statewide average of 19 property damage collisions for every 100 pursuits.

A damaged police SUV is crashed against a building near a street corner with traffic lights and another police vehicle nearby.
An officer crashed a San Francisco police vehicle into the entrance of the former Lucca Ravioli deli while chasing a suspect on June 21, 2023. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

Ciara Keegan was injured last December in a head-on collision with two armed robbery suspects who were fleeing San Francisco police cruisers. The suspects crashed into her SUV after erratically weaving through traffic on the Bay Bridge at speeds of up to 80 mph in a sedan with deflated tires.

While police nabbed both of them, the arrests came at a cost: Keegan suffered bruising and other injuries that made it hard for her to take care of herself for a week.

Keegan blames the police—even more than the fleeing suspects—for putting her life in danger. She thinks Proposition E would make the public less safe.

“I know that police chases don’t make us safer,” Keegan said. “The current pursuit policy put my life at risk, and it puts other people’s life at risk.”

The measure “would make the situation even scarier by allowing more police chases,” she said.