When to Pursue
Before participating in a foot pursuit, you have to decide whether the pursuit is worth the risk. You have to ask yourself, "Should I pursue?"
The answer to that very simple question is actually pretty complicated. To arrive at the decision of whether to pursue, you have to know the following information: Who is the subject? What help is available? When is the foot pursuit taking place? Where is the foot pursuit taking place? Why am I pursuing?
The answers to these questions are situational, so no magazine article or even training class can answer them for you. But before you go tearing down a dark alley in pursuit of a subject, make sure that you have asked these questions and answered them.
Break It Off
One of the most important lessons that an officer learns is that he or she can always disengage and/or escalate in order to take proper police action. This means that you can start and stop a foot pursuit for a whole series of valid justifiable reasons.
A now-veteran Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office sergeant told us the story of a traffic stop that turned into a foot pursuit. The pursuit ended when the heavy-breathing, but smiling, rookie deputy realized that he had the offender's driver's license, a positive ID, and the offender's new car in his possession. The deputy stopped chasing the suspect, caught his breath, walked back to his squad car, and called for a tow.
The lesson here is simple: Don't let the adrenaline pumping through your veins in the heat of a pursuit short-circuit your brain. If you can achieve the arrest later without a foot pursuit and the fleeing suspect does not represent an immediate threat to the people you serve, then call off the pursuit.
You can also avoid a pursuit by outsmarting the subject. For example, we like to teach new officers the theory of area containment as a means of making sure that a subject can run but can't hide.
It works like this. Using the contact/cover principle, a team of officers can position themselves at opposite corners of a house in order to establish visual surveillance of a building until other officers can be brought to the scene to search it tactically.
Area containment can also be used to seal off a full residential block. After a suspect flees into a residential area, a minimum of two squads can quickly position themselves at opposite corners of the block and establish visual control of that area. If the suspect doesn't violate the visual surveillance perimeter, the officers can wait for backup to arrive before searching for the suspect. If the suspect does cross the perimeter, the squads can leapfrog to keep the suspect "contained" until additional help arrives or the decision is made to call off the search.
Vehicle Pursuits and Foot Pursuits
You are in extreme danger when a vehicle pursuit turns into a foot pursuit. Don't let your initial decision to pursue a vehicle automatically turn into a decision to pursue on foot when a suspect bails out of a vehicle. This is a totally new decision based on a totally new set of facts.
Remember that the vehicle that is stopped is itself evidence. It can also have evidence in it, which can include weapons. During a foot pursuit a suspect can circle around and return to his or her vehicle and drive away or retrieve weapons and/or evidence. In addition, your squad car, its equipment, and the weapons left behind are subject to theft. Don't let adrenalin rule your good tactical sense.
Subject Control on the Run
How to establish physical control of a suspect who is fleeing from an officer on foot has always been the subject of debate. Defensive tactics will always be a matter of opinion but there are practical issues that must be addressed.
First of all, don't follow too closely, directly behind the fleeing suspect. If the suspect stops suddenly, you will crash right into him. If you can't establish an escort position to decentralize the subject, you may need to "check" him to stop his run and then move in for physical control or draw your handgun and order him into your department's handcuffing position.
If the suspect suddenly turns and assaults you, you may not be able to respond in time to prevent the initial assault. Be ready for a sudden change in the suspect's behavior from flight to fight.
We teach our students to remember Coach Bob Lindsey's When/Then principle. For example, when the fleeing suspect turns and assaults me, then I will ... Be sure you know the answer.
Drawn Handgun Subject Control
The final issue that needs to be discussed is the decision to chase a suspect with your firearm drawn. There are many reasons for not running with your handgun drawn: the increased risk of unintentional discharge, the danger of falling, dropping your gun, and losing your gun during a scuffle, just to name a few.
Running with a handgun is not easy nor is it advised. It's dangerous, but, of course, so is facing an armed assailant with your firearm holstered. If you have to chase with your firearm drawn, remember the number one rule of foot pursuits: if you get hurt, you fail. If you need your firearm drawn and can't pursue safely, which includes safe gun handling, you probably should back off.
And be aware that although there are many hazards to running after someone with your gun drawn, you are in the most danger when you actually catch up to your target. When you are toe to toe with the suspect with your firearm drawn, you must control the suspect and maintain control of your sidearm.
This presents you with two primary problems. One is the danger of being disarmed. The other is the possible unintentional discharge of your weapon due to a "sympathetic reaction" when you grab the suspect with your non-gun hand.
One solution is to transition your firearm to your non-gun hand, reducing the chance of an unintentional discharge while presenting your strong side and favored striking side, for subject control. This tactic will also help prevent you from using your gun as an impact weapon, possibly causing severe damage to the subject's head. Striking a subject in the head with a firearm could lead to public relations and courtroom problems. In addition, by transitioning your sidearm to your non-gun hand and controlling the suspect with your gun hand, you make it considerably more difficult for him or her to grab your weapon.
Remember that if we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. The Milwaukee Police Department and other departments throughout the country have learned some tragic lessons over the years. To prevent such tragedies, officers have developed tactics and training to minimize the risks. Use these tactics and training to your advantage.
Gary Klugiewicz is a retired captain with the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office. He is nationally known as a law enforcement use-of-force expert who specializes in high-level control tactics and is the director of training for the Fox Valley Technical College Tactical Training Division located in Appleton, Wis.
James Smith is a detective with the Milwaukee Police Department. He gained national recognition as the lead instructor for the Calibre Press's Realistic Assailant Control Training Program and as the developer of the Tactile Running and Tactical Running Training Programs.