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Duty Dangers: Vehicle Pursuits

The thrill of the chase is well known to most patrol officers, but high-speed pursuits can be deadly for officers, suspects, and innocent civilians.

January 12, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Mark W. Clark
Photo: Mark W. Clark

Given the benefit of a controlled environment, a law enforcement officer is generally capable of operating a patrol vehicle with skill. Under the calm, measured rigors of a required Emergency Vehicle Operator Course (EVOC), officers conquer skid pans, overcome distractions, and easily surmount challenges.

But away from the training grounds, officers may find the mean streets of patrol far less accommodating. Nowhere is this more apparent than when officers find themselves engaged in a vehicle pursuit. Confronted with the prospect of being shot at, rammed, or colliding with some other vehicle or pedestrian, an officer's emotions may cloud his or her vision and judgment. Underestimating a suspect's resolve to evade capture or overestimating his own limitations or those of her patrol car only enhance the dangers inherent to his situation.

And it is not just the lead unit in a pursuit that is imperiled. Upon hearing of a pursuit in progress, other officers may attempt to catch up and join the chase.

In Campbell County, Va., deputy sheriff Jason Lee Saunders was racing to catch up to a pursuit in progress when his patrol car left the roadway at high speed and struck a tree. The three-year veteran was killed on impact.

And the Saunders case is not an extreme example. Pursuits factor prominently in a number of fatal law enforcement collisions.

Pursuit Policy

The dangers imposed by police vehicle chases extend beyond the pursued and the pursuer. Police pursuits have culminated in deadly collisions with otherwise uninvolved motorists and others on the nation's sideroads and sidelines. Increasingly, officers are apt to find themselves facing criminal charges and civil suits from such incidents.

Attempts to stem the tide of pursuit-related crashes have taken many forms. Training has played a substantial role, with everything from EVOC to simulators affording officers some vicarious sense of what a pursuit might be like and how emotions can lead an officer to make dangerous decisions during a pursuit. Technological improvements on the vehicles have also helped make police pursuits safer. Tire companies produce a variety of models designed to be terrain and weather specific, and one cannot overemphasize the importance of air bags and policies mandating seat belt usage.

Increasingly, police departments are adopting more stringent policies, making it more difficult for officers to initiate or sustain a pursuit. Some pursuit critics have gone so far as to advocate a national policy governing police pursuits.

Despite its dissenters, the police pursuit will continue to be a tool in officers' arsenals until a magic bullet comes along that is capable of instantaneously incapacitating any motor vehicle and obviating the need for a chase. Criminals usually don't want to get caught, so they run away. That leaves law enforcement with one of two choices: let them get away or pursue.

Letting criminals get away could break down the legal system and lead to anarchy. This was noted several years ago when former IACP President Chief David G. Walchak observed that "if...a law enforcement agency decides not to engage in high speed pursuits, its credibility...and its effectiveness may be diminished. Public knowledge that the agency has a policy prohibiting pursuit may encourage people to flee, decreasing the probability of apprehension."

The Tampa Police Department's moratorium on its officers pursuing anything other than violent felony offenders bears out Walchak's concerns. Within two years of adopting the policy, Tampa earned the distinction of ranking second in the nation in auto thefts, as nonviolent felons fled from its officers with impunity. Seeing the error of their ways, the police department's administrators reverted to a policy that allows officers to pursue most felony suspects. The result was an immediate decrease in the number of auto thefts in the Tampa city limits.

Fashioning a manageable pursuit policy has frustrated many law enforcement agencies that have tried to reconcile serving and protecting law-abiding citizens and arresting criminals. Unfortunately, this push-pull dynamic often finds the agency trying to simultaneously protect the public from both its predators and itself. It isn't surprising that a recent nationwide poll of law enforcement agencies found that 90% of pursuit policies were becoming more restrictive.

Revising the criteria for pursuits is one thing. Actively discouraging them is another. The NYPD's pursuit policy is representative of what is fast becoming the profession's standard: "Department policy requires that a vehicle pursuit be terminated whenever the risks to uniformed members of the service and the public outweigh the danger to the community if the suspect is not immediately apprehended."

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