Quick--answer this question in 25 words or less. How dangerous is pursuit?
Chasing and catching bad guys is what we do. It's what we've always done. Marshall Dillon and Roy Rogers and Wyatt Earp and Hopalong Cassidy and Deputy Dawg all did it on horseback. Reed and Malloy, Lieutenant Dan Matthews, Ponch and John, and Toody and Muldoon all did it in cars. Heck, Sky King even did it in an airplane. Both mythically and in reality, police pursuit has long been a part of law enforcement.
In our lighter moments, or amongst ourselves over backyard barbeque, or at choir practice, we sometimes whimsically cast the idea of chasing and catching bad guys as part of the fun of police work. Viewed from its most positive perspective, locking up people that hurt other people is gratifying, and the fact that we get to drive fast in doing it is an added bonus.
However, the reality of police pursuit is a much more serious matter, as any officer will tell you once they get done kidding around. When viewed as a "pursuit" rather than a "chase," going after suspects and criminals takes on a whole different aura. It can be dangerous, since we don't know why the bad guy is fleeing. Driving at high speed can, in fact, be exhilarating. It's also more dangerous for the officers involved, and potentially hazardous for other motorists that share the highway.
Over the last 20 years, there has been a trend developing in law enforcement that places more and more limitations on police pursuit. The rising costs of litigation, accompanied by fear of lawsuits and the attendant bad publicity, have caused many agencies to enact policies geared toward severely curtailing or eliminating pursuit, except in cases involving the most serious crimes. Along with this concern for civil liability that seems to permeate everything we do nowadays, there is a growing awareness that pursuit, and motor vehicles in general, present safety hazards for officers. In fact, as many or more officers are killed in vehicular incidents each year as are killed in felonious assaults. Common sense tells us that a far greater number are injured.
Exactly how many? Nobody knows for sure. Based on your knowledge of the job, you know it has to be a lot.
The Human Factor
Because of this growing concern for liability, as well as concern for officer safety, there is clearly a need for more training in the area of emergency vehicle operations. No matter how much training we have had in this area (and some of us have had precious little) it's never enough.
What training we get tends to center on a classroom recap of the law and policy, and perhaps a discussion of vehicle dynamics. Then we move to the driving range, if we're lucky, for a little defensive driving. We practice threshold braking and evasive steering, cornering and skid control, and maybe some backing and close quarters maneuvering.
All of this is good training, and we need it. What often gets left out, however, is the most critical element of all--how to deal with the emotional aspect of a pursuit.
Every one of us has experienced a phenomenon commonly known as body alarm response. You probably think of this as your "fight or flight" response. This is your normal reaction to a perceived threat, that moment when your situational awareness begins to shift into hyper-drive, and you start to go into survival mode.
We've all been there. Body alarm response manifests itself in many ways, differently for each of us, and often differently based upon the situation. Common reactions are tension, sweating, shallow rapid breathing, quickened pulse, perceptual narrowing, a feeling of anxiety, and the list goes on. There are many physiological and psychological elements to this normal, natural reaction to danger.