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Cutting Out the Chase

Tragic accidents involving innocent motorists have forced some law enforcement agencies to modify their pursuit policies.

April 01, 2003  |  by John L. Bellah

Pursuit Alternatives

There’s more to deciding to chase that bad guy in his car than whether or not he did something wrong. A high-speed chase can be dangerous to everyone involved, including the officer and his reputation if something goes wrong.

Let's face it. Pursuits are dangerous, and when someone becomes injured or killed as a result of a police pursuit gone awry it becomes newsworthy. Letters to the editor fire up the politicians who get on the bandwagon to try to limit or eliminate pursuits. Those letters often detail citizens' ideas for alternatives to the hazards of police chases.

Some of these "solutions" are, well, laughable, such as: "Can't you just get the license number and go to the person's home later and arrest them?" Other "solutions" include putting the police in slower cars to prevent dangerous pursuits, or that old perennial of having the police "shoot the tires out" on a suspect's car before it can drive away. That last argument is proof that some otherwise intelligent people live in a comic book world when it comes to law enforcement.

Let's take a look at some of these solutions in terms of how practical they are and how effective they could be.

The suggestion of having an officer just obtain a license number and arrest the driver later may be a viable solution if the identity and residence of the driver are known. But there's a real big problem with this concept. Not everybody who runs from the police is driving his or her own personal vehicle. The vehicle may be stolen or borrowed. Or the license plates could have been removed, switched, or otherwise concealed.

That brings us to alternative number two, literally stripping the police of the ability to chase by equipping them with low-powered vehicles incapable of hot pursuit. There's historical precedent to show that this is ludicrous.

Fifty years ago, the Los Angeles Police Department made an exhaustive study of vehicle pursuits. At that time, the basic patrol car was powered by a six-cylinder engine, similar to what other major large cities-New York and Chicago-utilized as patrol cars. LAPD quickly learned that an officer driving an under-powered police car often got into trouble by out-driving the vehicle's capabilities. Surprisingly, when the police were given V-8 powered cars, the success rate in ending pursuits without injuries and property damage was considerably higher. Consequently, by the mid 1960s, the LAPD selected a mid-size Plymouth powered by 383-cubic-inch V-8, with a 4-barrel carburetor as its standard patrol vehicle.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police fielded special service package Mustangs and Camaros in the late 1970s and early '80s when the performance of the available police sedan deteriorated due to mandated environmental concerns. RCMP brass predicted that the newly purchased high-performance pursuit vehicles would increase pursuits as the violators would see them as a challenge and actively attempt to outrun the police.

But the Mounties quickly learned a lesson that the LAPD learned a dozen years before: people are less inclined to try to outrun the combination of a formidable vehicle designed for pursuit driven by an officer who has been extensively trained in the art of pursuit driving. As one LAPD officer of the era said, "The best pursuit is no pursuit. The next best pursuit is a short pursuit."

Officer Discretion

While researching this article, POLICE magazine queried numerous law enforcement agencies nationwide. This survey covered large, medium, and small agencies, as well as specialized agencies, such as university police departments. Most agencies still leave the final decision to pursue with the officer and his or her immediate supervisor. Among all of the different policies, however, the "bottom line" at most agencies is don't chase unless: "the need to pursue outweighs the risks involved."

In reality, this almost must be on a case-by-case basis, and can be a double-edged sword. Many agencies frown on a pursuit based on a simple traffic violation. However, if the driver of the suspect vehicle takes off "and drives in a reckless manner," that changes things. Reckless driving is usually a misdemeanor, but it poses a danger to the public. Experience tells us that often when someone runs from the police they will continue to drive in a reckless manner long after eluding the officers. Will the public continue to be endangered after the officers have discontinued the pursuit? Perhaps so.

Other concerns must be considered beyond the seriousness of the offense. When deciding whether to pursue, officers should weigh the time of day, weather conditions, speeds involved, condition of the road, the immediate presence of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, the capabilities of their vehicles, quality of radio communications, their knowledge of the area, and their vehicle handling skills. Officers and supervisors should not be afraid to call off a pursuit if it exceeds their capabilities. When available, a helicopter is useful in taking over a pursuit.

Deadly Force

Many agencies are now using, or considering the application of, "legal intervention" such as ramming techniques, tire deflation devices, and even shooting at the suspect and/or vehicle. These tactics, however, may constitute deadly force and should be used appropriately.

In a recent pursuit of a Ford pickup suspected of transporting illegal immigrants, Border Patrol agents laid out a spike strip, which was successful in flattening the tires. However, the driver elected to continue fleeing at speeds up to 80 mph on the wheel rims. The driver lost control, and the truck overturned resulting in serious injuries and fatalities among the occupants.

Not only should police be aware that some of the measures they can take to end a car chase constitute deadly force, the public should be aware that running from the police constitutes a very real hazard to public safety. Using this logic, one of the best deterrents to police chases is stiff penalties for people who elect to foolishly flee from the police and endanger the public. Some states are addressing this issue, and they have made fleeing from the police a felony.

Agencies should in a car also take measures to prevent unnecessary pursuits, and prevent pursuits from getting out of control. In the old days, some officers would "invite" a pursuit by turning on the emergency lights a couple of blocks behind the violator and hoping that he (or she) would rabbit. Many officers felt that this was great "fun." Such a practice is no longer acceptable. Traffic conditions, liability issues, and the dangers to all involved are just too great.

John L. Bellah is a working police officer with more than 25 years of
experience in law enforcement. He is a frequent contributor to POLICE who
specializes in motor vehicle issues and patrol car evaluations.

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