Houston Police Chief Troy Finner announced Thursday that his officers are no longer allowed under agency policy to chase all fleeing drivers, a change aimed at reducing the number of crashes and injuries during police pursuits.

Finner said officers are not allowed anymore to chase fleeing drivers who are only suspected of the lowest-level misdemeanor crimes, as well as those with traffic, municipal or nonviolent misdemeanor warrants. 

HPD policy still gives officers permission to chase drivers suspected of higher-level misdemeanors and felonies. With a supervisor’s approval, they also are allowed to pursue vehicles with stolen or missing license plates or somebody inside the car who is subject to an ongoing investigation.

The announcement follows a Houston Chronicle investigation published last month that found HPD vehicle pursuits had risen 47 percent in the last five years, contributing to an increase in crashes and injuries. According to the Chronicle, 240 bystanders were injured or killed during that time, and one out of three HPD chases resulted in a crash.

Finner said HPD is averaging five vehicle chases per day so far in 2023, a 26 percent increase compared to this time last year. HPD officials said 172 people were injured and three died as a result of police chases through the end of August this year. A fourth person died in a pursuit this month.

At a press conference Thursday, Finner said HPD has had “too many” chases and injuries in recent years.

“Nobody is giving up our right to police,” Finner said. “You got the wrong chief, the wrong leaders in the wrong police department if you think that’s what it is. It’s not. It’s just us being smarter.”

Finner, who took over as HPD’s police chief in 2021, said he believes officers can still hold fleeing suspects accountable by arresting them after they drive away from officers. He did not know Thursday how many pursuits initiated in years past would have been prohibited by the new policy.

Under HPD’s policy, officers are allowed to chase vehicles “only if the officer determines in good faith under the circumstances (that) the need to immediately apprehend the suspect outweighs the … risk of harm to the officer or the public,” Finner said.

The policy addition, however, states that officers are not allowed to pursue drivers suspected of Class C misdemeanors, the least serious of the three types of misdemeanors under Texas law, or those with lower-level warrants.

Finner noted that his officers would be receiving updated training on pursuits, as well as tactics “aimed at stopping a pursuit before they begin.” He declined to discuss those tactics Thursday.

Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and national expert in vehicle pursuits, said Houston is joining many other agencies that have created additional policies restricting chases. However, Alpert said some departments have gone further than Houston.

“What Houston did was go from a very vague policy … where you could chase anyone for anything to a middle ground, which is better than it was but still doesn’t reach the standard of a violent crime,” Alpert said.

Douglas Griffith, the president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said his organization took part in the policy changes and appreciated that Finner didn’t ban all chases of nonviolent offenders.

“I believe that this is just a good way for us to try to minimize the impact on citizens, innocent citizens, yet still have the ability to pursue … violent offenders,” Griffith said.

Finner said he wanted to allow officers to continue pursuing stolen vehicles — even if the driver’s identity and background aren’t known — because “we know for a fact that these criminals, the violent criminals in our city, steal cars daily to commit violent crime.”

Alpert, however, balked at that idea.

“Putting people’s lives at risk for suspicions … that’s not good police work,” Alpert said.

Finner also promised a new public dashboard that would show data about agency chases. He said HPD staff are still determining what information will be shared. 

“We can’t bring back a relative, but we can do the best that we can do,” Finner said.

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Eileen Grench covers public safety for the Houston Landing, where two of her primary areas of focus will be the Houston Police Department and Harris County Sheriff’s Office. She is returning to local...