Vehicle pursuits are one of the most dangerous action an officer may be called upon to do during a given shift. The "bad guys" in the suspect vehicle have absolutely no regard for their own safety in their attempt to escape and absolutely no regard for the safety of other motorists. They certainly have no interest in the safety of the pursuing officers.
On nearly any given day in large American cities, a person can turn on the television and see dramatic footage taken by a camera mounted to the nose of a helicopter showing police in pursuit of a vehicle driving wildly away from them.
Vehicle pursuits are commonly glorified in film and television and, as is the case in most fictional portraits of police work, there is a distinct disconnect between those scenes and the reality of what LEOs actually face on the streets. Those scenes very rarely end in the death or dismemberment of a suspect, a law enforcement officer, or an innocent bystander.
In reality, vehicle pursuits can quickly turn tragic.
According to an analysis conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2015, more than 5,000 bystanders and passengers have been killed in police vehicle pursuits since 1979.
Furthermore, according to data in a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from nearly a decade ago, the number of law enforcement officers killed in vehicle crashes has remained a significant problem since the early 1990s, despite substantial improvements in vehicle safety equipment in those 30 years.
Consequently, many agencies have chosen to institute new policies that strictly restrict—or prohibit outright—patrol vehicle pursuits.
In restrictive pursuit policies, command staff—and EVOC driving instructors—are emphasizing the decision-making process, telling officers to ask the question when initiating a pursuit, "Does the need to apprehend the suspect outweigh the potential risk to themselves or the public?"
At agencies that have a strict "do not pursue" policy, many officers feel like their command staff has given up—given in to the criminals—and revealed to them that they have no faith in their ability to enforce the law in a reasonable and rational way.
What is the correct balance?
Calling it Quits
One of the solutions to vehicle pursuit liability and safety that many agencies across the country have adopted is enabling command staff monitoring radio and video traffic from an office—as their officers are chasing a vehicle—to simply call off the chase.
If they determine that the pursuit is unnecessarily creating a public safety risk, they make the command decision to tell officers to allow the offending vehicle to go forward in hopes that at some point it will be located and the occupants arrested.
The supervisor in the department HQ or substation doesn't have the adrenaline running through their veins, while the officers out on the street in pursuit most certainly do. The reasoning, then, is that the supervisor will make more sound decisions about that risk/reward ratio present in every vehicle pursuit.
Officers may be initially frustrated to be told to peel off and allow the offender vehicle to escape, but they will also probably soon realize that their supervisor may have just saved their lives from the comfort of a leather office chair.
It's a matter of balance.
For many years, police have used tire deflation devices—so called "spike strips"—deployed from the roadside to disable fleeing vehicles and end a police pursuit. In many, many cases, this is an effective—and relatively low-tech—way of stopping a fleeing vehicle and putting the occupants into police custody.
However, all too many officers have been badly injured or killed deploying these devices. Many of those injuries or deaths occurred while LEOs were deploying tire deflation devices on an interstate freeway or rural roadway where speeds could reach more than 100 miles per hour.
So in the past decade—or thereabouts—companies have concocted alternatives that may help agencies more safely apprehend offenders fleeing from them at high speed.
One such innovator is MobileSpike, a device that is mounted to the front bumper of the squad car. It is essentially a mechanical arm—covered in tire spikes—that swings out from the patrol vehicle from beneath the push bumper. An officer need only get close enough to the offending vehicle as they might do to initiate a PIT maneuver, press a button on the dash, and one or more of the tires on the fleeing vehicle will be destroyed.
Another innovator is StarChase, a device mounted to the front of a patrol vehicle that launches a GPS transponder at the fleeing vehicle where it sticks and sends a signal to a receiver typically located in the dispatchers' office. This enables commanders to monitor where the vehicle has stopped, and then more tactically deploy officers to that location to take the occupants into custody.
The trick is that if the driver of the vehicle has fled on foot from the scene before officers arrive, there's a significant chance that they won't be found without the assistance of a K-9 unit capable of tracking the offender's scent.
It's a matter of balance.
Many injuries and deaths related to police pursuits are to innocent victims or the pursuing officers, not the fleeing felon behind the subject vehicle. Consequently, options such as calling off a pursuit from afar, or obtaining new technology that can help more safely end a pursuit must be explored and examined by law enforcement leaders.
Beat cops are sure to bristle at changes to pursuit policy, but when they realize that the chief and the rest of the command staff who help lead the agency are really looking out for the safety of the line officers out on the streets, it's just as sure that they'll come to accept those changes.
It's a matter of balance.