This op-ed by Cat Brooks originally appeared in Prism.
On June 26 in Oakland, California, two rookie cops engaged in an unsanctioned high-speed chase that killed 28-year-old pedestrian Lolomanaia Soakai and injured three others.
The chase ensued when officers spotted another man, Arnold Linaldi, leaving a sideshow in East Oakland in an allegedly stolen vehicle. The officers pursued as a ghost stop—an unsanctioned chase that violates departmental policy.
The Oakland Police Department’s policy states that cops may only engage in pursuit if “there is reasonable suspicion to believe the fleeing individual committed a violent forcible crime and/or a crime involving the use of a firearm, or probable cause that the individual is in possession of a firearm.”
None of these were a factor in the pursuit of Linaldi, who was driving upwards of 100 miles an hour on city streets before crashing into three parked vehicles, causing one of them to jump the sidewalk, land on Soakai, and kill him.
KTVU reported that a source close to OPD has stated the officers fled the scene, potentially unaware their body cameras were on, and were recorded saying something akin to “I hope they die,” referring to Linaldi. Adding insult to injury—literally—these same officers later returned to the scene pretending they had never been there in the first place.
When we talk about violent policing, we often think of officers beating, shooting, tasing, or choking our people to death. Between June 2015 and May 2016, police killed about 1,200 people—though the number is likely higher as law enforcement agencies (LEAs) fail to track and report these incidents in any meaningful way—if at all.
Similarly, underreported and much less publicly discussed are the hundreds of ineffective and irresponsible police high-speed pursuits that occur across the country every day and the countless number of people killed as a result.
For years, advocates and families have pushed for an end to high-speed pursuits, demanding things like mandatory federal statistical tracking of pursuit injuries and deaths—which do not exist anywhere in the country—and policy shifts like violent felony-only pursuits.
LEA policies have indeed changed to regulate the conditions under which officers can initiate high-speed chases and when and how they should “terminate” them. They have had little-to-no impact, however, in part because officers rarely follow policy or actually terminate dangerous pursuits; instead opting to “drop back,” which is often ineffective as the pursued individual can still see law enforcement and is thus likely to continue driving dangerously.
Police are notorious for resisting policy changes—especially those that seek to dictate their behavior. Just look at the hundreds of Chicago police officers who retired or quit over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, or in Oakland, where an exit survey demonstrated that a primary reason for leaving was “heavy discipline.”
In short, police want to do what police want to do—consequences to us be damned.
In 2015, The Washington Post found that police high-speed chases kill approximately 323 people each year, more than floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and lightning combined.
Safer America found that from 1996 to 2015, an average of 355 people were killed annually in police pursuits—approximately one life per day—and that more than 2,000 people died during pursuits between 2014-18. In California, 2020 was a particularly deadly year with 41 deaths.
No one should lose their life this way, but it is worth noting that many of the people injured or killed are not the “suspects,” but their passengers, innocent bystanders with the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and even police officers themselves.
And for what? Many pursuits fail to even catch the intended target. A 2017 investigation by Andew Ford of the Asbury Park Press found that in New Jersey, from 2009-18, about 40% of police chases led to crashes, and nearly 1 in 5 resulted in injuries.
High-speed chases are just not worth the risk. The likelihood of innocent bystanders being injured or killed is high, and traffic stops (often precursors for chases) are not effective “crime” prevention measures. Traffic stops also encourage racial profiling and endanger communities.
After more than a decade of working in the field of police accountability, I would assert that much of the decision to pursue—despite policies—is likely rooted in three things: The git ’em culture that is pervasive in policing, the thrill of the chase (read hunt) that reflects the attitude of many who wear a badge and carry a gun in the name of “public safety,” and the unlikely occurrence they will ever be held accountable—as police associations across the country run a multi-million dollar industry in protecting criminal cops.
And of course, the Supreme Court sides with law enforcement here. A 1998 ruling prevented police departments from being held civilly liable in these tragedies.
The cops who killed Soakai are currently under investigation and have been placed on leave as the police OPD investigates itself and the officers’ actions.
This is no doubt little comfort to Soakai’s family. Especially when armed with the knowledge that not only did it not have to happen, but literally, as a department policy mandate, should never have happened.
Once again, the inherent and violent nature of policing in America claims an innocent life and further traumatizes a community already living under the heavy boot of the violent carceral state.
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.