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Should You Chase or Contain?

Often it's better to observe and set up a perimeter than pursue, but sometimes you just have to go and get them.

July 31, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

While many officers keep themselves in top-flight physical condition, few enjoy the prospect of performing impromptu wind sprints down dark alleys. For chasing a suspect carries with it all manner of varying threats.

Not only do you risk going it alone from the start or separating from your partner mid-chase, you also face having to go one-on-one with someone determined not to go back to the pen. And with that determination comes the possibility of deadly force being used-by you, the suspect, or both.

The alternative is to establish a containment of the suspect. Of course, this might afford your target additional time to insinuate himself elsewhere or call a homie to come and pick him up. The suspect's escape or capture may well come down to who has the best communications and the most rapid response.

So should you chase or contain? It depends on the situation and what agency you work for. Just as there are a variety of threats to consider about suspects in flight, so too are there differences of opinion as to how to address the problem.

By and large, administrators of larger police agencies, who are supposedly concerned about the welfare of their officers, have come down decidedly on the side of containing suspects. On the other side are the beat cops, the ones who ironically have the most to lose by chasing but feel duty bound to do so.

The Call of Duty

Former Fontana, Calif., police officer Frank Tolerico was shot three times by a suspect at the terminus of a foot pursuit. Two rounds were stopped by his trauma plate, but a third passed through his neck, barely missing his carotid artery and spine. He ended up shooting and killing the suspect, but not before nearly being killed himself.

Has such a traumatic experience changed his paradigm on foot pursuits?

Not at all.

"That's what our job is," Tolerico says, a hint of disgust in his voice. "We're there to protect the innocents-the taxpayers who these people prey upon. My posture is we prey on the predators."

Like many cops, Tolerico is not pleased with where he sees policy-driven law enforcement heading.

Who is Being Protected?

While the articulated justifications for such stringent policies are concerns for officers' welfare, a look at the histories of officers killed in foot pursuits would seemingly belie the assertion. If anything, officers tend to come out on top when going one on one with suspects. Certainly, the timing of such epiphanies invites second glances.

When the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department announced further curtailments to deputies' foot pursuit options, it did so after a year that saw a precipitous rise in deputy-involved shootings, many of which were incident to foot pursuits. As the shootings were apparently deemed to be within policy, and the deputies were obviously a leg up on the suspects, one might reasonably ask just whose welfare the department was concerned about: the deputy's, or the suspect's?

It's been more than 20 years since the last LASD deputy was killed incident to a foot pursuit, according to retired LASD deputy and former ALADS (the Association of L.A. Deputy Sheriffs) president Roy Burns. If the department is really that concerned over a deputy getting killed, then one might reasonably ask why it doesn't place greater emphasis on partnering its deputies in more two-man cars.

Whatever the impetus, LASD's foot pursuit policy reflects a direction in which many agencies are gravitating. A cynical take is that it is all risk management-dictated: If officers do not confront suspects, there is a diminished likelihood of officers using force on those suspects; so there will be fewer lawsuits and cries from outraged communities.

Many believe that was the reason Wellford, S.C., Mayor Sallie Peake decided to prohibit that town's officers from engaging in any foot pursuit, despite proclamations that it was intended to prevent officer injuries. But the subsequent brouhaha by both cops and citizens found the policy rescinded and cops back in the game.

Still, the question remains: Should cops chase suspects on foot? Or should they coordinate resources in hopes of containing the suspect and effecting an arrest?

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