Here’s what happened in Dallas in July 2012 that compelled the city to reconsider its policy on foot pursuit of suspects:
Police responded to a 911 call after a reported kidnapping at a South Dallas house. Officers entering the home spotted a gun as four suspects scattered. Officers split up to chase the suspects.
The officer who chased James Harper, 31, later told investigators that he was exhausted by the time he ended up alone after chasing Harper over three fences and into a horse corral. During a struggle, and fearing he was losing the fight, the officer said, he shot Harper as the suspect reached into a pocket for what was thought to be a weapon. It wasn’t.
Harper, who had a lengthy criminal history including for dealing drugs, assaulting a security officer and evading arrest, died at the scene.
Shooting an unarmed man is a serious incident—regardless of Harper’s criminal history. Hundreds of Harper’s neighbors took to the streets to protest.
By December of that year, the city had come up with new guidelines for foot chases that addressed a number of the factors that led to Harper’s death, including when an officer should stop pursuing a suspect. Dallas Police are to stop a pursuit if the officer loses his weapon or communications, or if he loses sight of the suspect, or if the officer is too tired to continue the chase. They’re also to consider the alternatives to a chase, such as an aerial search, using a swarm of officers to catch the suspect, following by car, or using search dogs. And whenever possible, they’re encouraged to get an ID on the suspect immediately, to avoid the need for a chase in the first place.
All of that is sound policy, but it was a remark by Assistant DPD Chief Michael Genovesi to the city’s Public Safety Committee members that caught the headlines—when he declared that, when multiple suspects flee (as happened with Harper), the police should focus on just one suspect: “Preferably the fatter guy,” the Dallas Morning News quoted him as saying.
It’s a good line that does actually speak to one of the better practices in foot chases: Rather than sending multiple officers in multiple directions after multiple suspects, potentially leaving each of them in a one-on-one physical contest that they could end up losing, using all officers on the scene to pursue the same suspect—who can then identify the others—is a sound policy. Whether or not the joke is really appropriate when discussing a policy that came about as a result of one of his officers shooting an unarmed man is perhaps another question.