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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

"We have some suspects that are used to other agencies backing off," Smithee laughs. "'What are you guys doing chasing me?' is a familiar cry. They're accustomed to officers from other agencies giving up the chase as soon as it starts. Here, we don't give up the chase; we end it as soon as possible."

Schiavelli is equally supportive of the P.I.T. maneuver, even as he acknowledges that it comes with certain challenges in his own state of Indiana.

"Two years ago, the state police actually got a statute on the books that said every city, county, or state police officer is allowed to execute a P.I.T. with the provision that the officer be trained in it," Schiavelli explains. "Indiana has about 565 different police agencies of various sizes and currently we have maybe about 14 agencies in the whole state that have that in their policies and have been very successful with it. Indianapolis Metro uses it a lot with great success. I'm a great believer in it. If you can shut this pursuit down in two blocks using the P.I.T., then shut it down."

Another pursuit intervention technique involves the deployment of vehicle disablers. Often referred to as "spike strips" or "stop sticks," these devices shred or puncture tires on the pursued automobile, allowing the vehicle to come to a controlled stop.

Intervention Hazards

Neither the P.I.T. nor vehicle disabler option is 100% effective and each poses a degree of jeopardy to the officers employing them.

The P.I.T. should be used only when the pursuit itself poses greater danger. For maximum effectiveness and safety, the P.I.T. should be applied under 35 mph and on roadways where injury to bystanders or other vehicles is minimal. It should not be used on large trucks, motorcycles, or vehicles with high centers of gravity due to the possibility of rollovers.

But whatever the dangers associated with the P.I.T., no pursuit intervention technique has proven itself more dangerous for officers in a relatively short period of time than the deployment of spike strips. The unpredictable direction of a pursuit and the flow of traffic around it require an officer to manually deploy the spike strip from the roadside, preferably while taking cover behind a freeway pillar or other concrete barrier. Even so, officers are left vulnerable to being struck by the suspect vehicle or other vehicles in traffic. One study estimates that at least 20 officers have died while deploying spike strips in the United States, three in just the past few months.

Schiavelli says that it appears that a lack of training may be factoring into these tragedies.

"One of my trainers just came back from an interagency training event where he saw guys setting up next to their cars to deploy stop sticks," he says. "We don't train that. If the pursued car collides with your unit, either vehicle can then come over the top of you."

Training Solutions

Pursuit training outside of the simulator is not easy to come by. Few agencies have EVOC training facilities large enough to enable full-scale reproduction of pursuit conditions.

Indiana-based trainer Schiavelli's solution to this problem was to make use of the Indianapolis Speedway. On the same track that hosts the Indy 500, Schiavelli's students can practice high-speed pursuits. But Schiavelli realizes that not every agency has a race track for training.

Still Schiavelli warns against law enforcement not making the most of whatever training it can afford its officers. He recommends that agencies pursue creative solutions to the problem.

Southern California-based Dr. Ron Martinelli, a use-of-force and training expert, echoes Schiavelli's concerns yet notes that law enforcement agencies all too often go to the other extreme.

"With the challenges we have in law enforcement today with funding, one of the first things that goes out the door is training," Martinelli says. "It should be exactly the opposite: When you don't have very much money to spend, you need to turn that money into training rather than technological gizmos because the training is going to reinforce the best practices with the officers. Officers will act in the manner in which they are trained to act. If they haven't been trained, they are going to go into hypervigilance. They are going to be confused, they are going to panic, freeze, or use force excessively, which means they've had an emotional response."

Training can prepare officers for the physical aspects of a chase, but it can't simulate the emotional and mental response to a chase. Officers get a rush of adrenaline during a high-speed pursuit; its effects can lead them to make dangerous decisions.

Sensory illusions are also difficult to duplicate in a training scenario. Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger noted that he did not experience the sense of speed in the darkness beyond the clouds when he set the still-standing record for fastest flight by a human. "Where you determine speed is visual-if you see something go flashing by," Kittinger said. "But nothing flashes by 20 miles up. There are no signposts there."

It's possible officers engaged in pursuits at night experience this phenomenon. Certainly, there appears to be an inordinate number of nighttime crashes. Should patrol cars have alarms to advise drivers when their speeds exceed a certain limit?

Another set of eyes in the form of a passenger officer might also help an officer in a pursuit realize that he or she is driving dangerously. Unfortunately, few agencies now field two-officer patrol units.

Perhaps the solution lies in biotechnology. In the near future patrol cars may be equipped with instruments to monitor an officer's respiratory and heart rates to help a watch commander  determine whether that pursuing officer is in control.

Until then, officers need to use more common sense and more restraint when faced with a pursuit situation. Their lives and the lives of innocent civilians may very well depend on it.


Ways to End Vehicle Pursuits

He Flees: To Pursue or Not to That is the Question

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