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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

Such explicit parameters would seemingly suffice, but the inventiveness of some patrol officers has found additional inhibiters being adopted. Chicago warns against an officer's revisionist take on car chases: "Officers will not use the activity of 'following' as a subterfuge for a vehicular pursuit."

Egos and Pursuit Rage

Policy-driven approaches focus on the most manageable factor of a police pursuit: The employee. Since little of a preemptive nature can be done to deter a person hell-bent on running from the police, it makes sense to exert a degree of control on the officer who is in the position to give chase.

Policies are only part of the solution; actively cultivating disciplined mindsets is critical to the success of such policies. The decision to pursue may have theoretically been taken out of officers' hands thanks to pursuit policy, but it is the patrol officer who ultimately decides whether to chase, as well as the manner in which to pursue and for how long.

One would think the street cop wouldn't need to be sold on the idea of personal restraint when it comes to pursuits. Officers have watched the training tapes, listened to the cautionary parables, been witness to the aftermath of traffic collisions and the carnage left in their wake, and know just how dangerous life can be where emergency lights and sirens are obligated.

Still, there appears at times to be a disconnect. The same cop who laments the lack of public deference accorded his or her use of lights and sirens will continue to drive as though that deference is presumed, as if the lights and siren will make all other motorists get out of the way.

Officer ego also plays a role. Determined to prove their mettle, rookie cops are particularly resentful of being shown up by some lowlife felon.

Nick V. Schiavelli, an EVOC trainer at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, finds officer ego to be a huge obstacle in reconciling the need for officers to capture fleeing suspects and keeping a community safe from its own police force.

"Part of the problem is the officer's mindset," notes Schiavelli. "Younger cops, in particular, just don't want to see the suspect get away. But [they need to know] the suspect will drive at 100% capacity. We teach our officers to drive at 75% of theirs. Unfortunately, too often that mindset goes out the window, and they will overdrive the limits of themselves, the roads, and their cars."

Schiavelli is working hard to change the pursuit mindset of younger officers. "We do a training block on pursuit rage and why officers do what they do when they're in pursuits. We study the effects of the adrenaline rush and diminishing motor skills. We look at how tunnel vision sets in because you're so focused in on what you're doing chasing the bad guy. The dangers are well-communicated. The problem is, you can preach this in the academy or the training grounds, but you can't be out there in the car with them and make them do it."

Command and Control

Pursuits also put patrol supervisors in a difficult position. Despite their not being in the car-indeed, they are often miles away when a chase commences-watch commanders are expected to determine the need for a pursuit and at what point that need becomes exceeded by the need to cancel it. Part and parcel of the watch commander's decision-making process is what the pursuing officer is communicating through the radio, not only via words, but by emotional response to the situation as conveyed by voice inflection.

But there are often factors well beyond the watch commander's ability to evaluate, among them road and weather conditions. This is where the eyes on the ground become imperative in regulating a well-disciplined pursuit. This is where a supervisor has to have the courage to cancel pursuits where necessary.

As a patrol supervisor with the Los Angeles Police Department, Sgt. Andre Belotto has had to deal with the fallout that comes with canceling a pursuit. He uses such episodes as training lessons.

"In one incident, I explained to the pursuing officers that the reason for the pursuit being terminated had less to do with their actions and more to do with their peers," explains Belotto. "I advised them that the other officers were driving as if they were in a Chinese fire drill. So I had to remove the catalyst. That meant calling the pursuit off. No pursuit, no unsafe driving.

"My pep talk to the officers had several purposes: First, was to praise the primary unit officers for their actions. Second, was to ask all of the other officers to have some consideration for officers who become involved in a pursuit as primary and/or secondary units. The actions of the supporting officers and their driving will dictate whether the primary officers will get to see their efforts end in the arrest of the suspect.

"No arrest is so important that I will allow bad driving to end in officers or members of the public getting hurt. Not on my watch," Belotto says.

Ending the Chase

One way to minimize the dangers associated with chases is to make them shorter. And there are several tactics and devices that have been developed to end chases.

The Tactical Vehicle Intervention (TVI) also known as the Precision Intervention Technique (P.I.T.) when performed correctly is a technique that can stop a vehicle in its tracks. To properly conduct the P.I.T., the pursuer drives alongside the suspect car with its front tire aligned with the rear quarter panel of the suspect's vehicle, gently makes contact with the vehicle, then steers sharply into the vehicle. The P.I.T. causes the rear tires of the suspect vehicle to lose traction and the driver to lose control of the car. Oftentimes, the engine of the vehicle will stop, allowing officers to effect an arrest more easily. It is recommended that at least two additional pursuit vehicles follow at a safe distance behind the P.I.T. maneuver to react to changes in the situation and to follow through with the arrest.

Capt. Scot Smithee of the Gilroy (Calif.) Police Department is an advocate of the P.I.T., and notes that his agency's aggressive policy on P.I.T. deployments has been instrumental in successfully terminating many a pursuit.

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