On April 15 at about 7:30 p.m., Officer Stephen Gray of the Merced (Calif.) Police Department stopped a car on Glen Avenue. Official reports say that Gray then conducted a field interview with one of the passengers; the passenger resisted, a struggle ensued, and the passenger ran with Gray in pursuit. According to reports, the short foot chase ended when the passenger drew a handgun and shot the officer twice. Gray was pronounced dead later that evening at a local hospital.
Any officer who has ever had to run after a suspect knows that a foot chase is extremely hazardous. Running after a suspect can place you in a situation where you can be easily attacked, injured by accident, or even have a heart attack. Real life is not a movie, and the decision to hoof it after the bad guy should never be made lightly. It can be a life and death decision.
Consider these statistics from the Milwaukee Police Department. In the last 20 or so years, the Milwaukee PD has lost five officers in incidents that began as foot pursuits. Five out of 13 Milwaukee officers who have been killed in the line of duty since 1980 died following foot pursuits.
The message here should be stated in no uncertain terms: Never pursue a suspect on foot unless you absolutely have to.
Unfortunately, you sometimes have to do so. But you should know what you're getting into before you start sprinting after a suspect, and you should use every available and appropriate tactic to prevent a suspect from rabbiting.
The best way to end a foot pursuit is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Using the contact/ cover principle, you and your backup can position yourselves to stop a suspect from attempting to escape by cutting off escape routes. In addition, proper placement of officers makes it easy to perform a "quick snatch" technique that leads to rapid stabilization and keeps everyone safer by avoiding the "crash and burn" that often accompanies unexpected resistance.
It's also critical for you to understand that tactics are not just physical. One of the best tools you have to prevent a suspect from running is your voice. Good verbal communication tactics can help calm the suspect during an arrest or even an interview and prevent a foot pursuit.
The first rule of foot pursuits is to employ sound tactics to stop them before they start. The second is to be prepared to pursue a suspect because sometimes, despite your best efforts, he or she will run.
You have to be in good physical shape to become a cop, but once many of us have spent a few years on the job, we get pretty soft. This is why one of the primary hazards of a police foot chase is pulled muscles and other exertion-related injuries.
Years ago we worked with fellow officer Bob Willis to develop a program to train officers how to successfully conduct foot pursuits. It covered both physical preparedness and tactical awareness.
The first part of the program is what we call "Tactile Running." Essentially a physical training regimen, Tactile Running teaches officers how to prevent exertion injuries during a foot pursuit by focusing on flexibility, fitness, and environmental awareness.
Using the Tactile Running pursuit concept, you start out walking after the suspect, then you walk faster, speed up to a jog, and finally to a full sprint, if necessary. This foot pursuit strategy, added to a pre-work warm-up and several gentle stretches during your shift, will help you avoid the pulled muscles that often accompany a full sprint from a cold start, even if you've been sitting in a patrol car all shift.
Remember that one of the major factors in deciding whether to conduct a foot pursuit is your own personal fitness level. This is no laughing matter. The first indication for many people of a cardiac problem is sudden death from cardiac arrest.
OK. Let's assume you are a real athlete. You can run for miles on the academy track or on the local running club's cross-country course. That's great, we commend you on your fitness. But no matter how fit you are, it's important for you to remember that a foot pursuit is not an athletic event that takes place on a smooth track or maintained path.
This is why the Tactile Running concept includes training in how to run around obstacles. Common environmental hazards that officers encounter during foot pursuits include uneven terrain and low-light conditions, as well as swing sets, sandboxes, children's toys, garden tools, trash cans, and other items found in most residential neighborhoods and alleyways.
For the Tactile Foot Pursuit program, we set up a special running course in the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office Gym. The gym consists of a two-level workout area and basketball courts with two staircases going up to an overhead running track and locker room areas. Once the doors were locked and secured and the lights turned down to a twilight level, the fun began. The officers ran laps around the entire facility. They ran along the gym floor, with all the weight benches, tables, chairs, volleyball nets, and associated junk left lying haphazard in their path, then up the stairs around the tracks doing a series of running to prone position to running exercises, into the locker rooms around the lockers and fixed benches, and down the stairs back to the gym floor.
(Trainers who want to duplicate this exercise can contact us through POLICE magazine's Web forum at www.policemag.com. We can provide you with detailed instructions on how to maximize officer safety during this strenuous training.)
Once you have learned the sub-skill of staying physically safe from muscle injuries and obstacles during a foot pursuit, it's time to think tactically. To safely apprehend a suspect at the end of a foot pursuit you need to learn how to follow, not chase, learn how to know where the suspect is going to come out, and learn how and where to set up an ambush.
In our program, officers wore their duty belts and weapons and were allowed to plan how to deploy and use their weapons during actual foot pursuit drills. And they soon learned some hard lessons about when, where, and how a fleeing suspect can set you up. We then taught them how to avoid these traps and how to turn the tables on would-be assailants to successfully complete a foot pursuit.
It's very important that you understand the meaning of the word "successful" as it applies to police foot pursuits. A successful foot pursuit is not one where you necessarily catch the fleeing suspect. A successful foot pursuit means you get to go home safe and sound at the end of your shift and the job gets done. Remember, catching the bad guy is important, but there are no "acceptable casualties" in police work.