To Chase or Not to Chase?

Officers are injured, and some die, when a high-speed pursuit ends in a crash. Often innocent people who happen to be in the vicinity at the wrong time are also hurt or killed. Both situations are bad for officers, police departments, the victims, their families and the public at large.

"Back when I started studying police pursuits in the 1980s, law enforcement was concerned with officer injuries," recalls Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina. "But since the early 1990s that emphasis has shifted. Police departments are wondering how important is it to risk the public to pursue fleeing suspects wanted for minor property offenses or traffic infractions. Many in law enforcement now are restricting pursuits to suspects of violent felonies."

He says that research has shown the threshold where it's worth the risk to the public is at the violent felony level. "The arguments that if people run from officers, they're obviously guilty, or if you don't chase fleeing suspects, everyone will flee — they have turned out to be myths," Alpert asserts. "Often the people who run from officers are petty criminals making stupid decisions. Police are learning that they don't want the blood of innocent victims on their hands just to catch someone for speeding."

Alpert reads about police departments restricting their pursuit policies every week or so. "It's an increasing trend, and from my viewpoint, a good one," he says. "Officers aren't missing anything, what they're doing is saving lives."

He admits there are no national statistics on how many injuries and deaths result from high-speed pursuits gone badly because only a handful of states keep records on this. "But I do know that approximately 40 percent of all pursuits end in a crash," Alpert says. "The officers I've interviewed feel horrible when a crash results. Most don't want that to ever happen again. It's damaging to them, as well as to the victims and their families."

In the heat of the moment, officers get involved in a chase anxious to put criminals behind bars; they're focusing on the bad guys and not the public. "The police departments which have created restrictive pursuit policies are essentially saying the command staff and chiefs have decided for the officers about what is worth chasing for and what isn't," Alpert explains. "They're balancing the need to apprehend suspects with the potential risks to the public."

Chicago and Dallas policies

The Chicago (Illinois) Police Department revised its pursuit policy in April 2003, according to Patrick Camden, deputy director of news affairs. "It was done to ensure departmental and public safety," he says. "Since we instigated the new policy, high-speed pursuits and crashes have declined dramatically."

The criteria to decide if a chase is initiated or continued is based on a balancing test, which the policy says is "the necessity to immediately apprehend the fleeing suspect outweighs the level of inherent danger created by a motor vehicle pursuit."

When applying the balancing test, officers have to take into consideration the speeds involved, maneuvering practices required to maintain vehicle control, volume of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and weather and road conditions. If the suspect's identity has been clearly established so later apprehension can be achieved, officers should consider not initiating or terminating an active pursuit. Thirdly, "whenever a pursued vehicle or pursing department vehicle is involved in any property damage traffic crash," the balancing test would help officers decide to terminate a pursuit.

The 13-page Chicago policy covers prohibitions (must be a more serious crime than theft or a nonhazardous traffic violation), authority and accountability, responsibilities and procedures when a pursuit is initiated and when it's terminated, and more.

One law enforcement agency that keeps improving its pursuit policy is the Dallas (Texas) Police Department. "We've had a pursuit policy for more than 20 years," says Lt. Randall Blankenbaker of the Dallas PD's Planning and Accreditation Unit. "It has evolved over time to the current policy, which was implemented in June of this year. The change was influenced by a desire to increase officer and citizen safety during high-speed pursuits."

The reason for the latest change was to restrict pursuits to these circumstances:

  1. When the officer has probable cause to believe that a felony involving the use or threat of physical force or violence has been, or is about to be, committed,
  2. and the officer reasonably believes that the immediate need to apprehend the offender outweighs the risk to any person of collision, injury or death,
  3. or to assist another law enforcement agency that has initiated a pursuit under the same circumstances.

"While it's not possible to accurately know what groups were involved in past changes, this most recent update was formulated by a panel of lieutenants," Blankenbaker recalls. The chief of police reviewed and gave his final approval, he says. The panel also looked at other police agencies' policies, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) model policy, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) standards, pursuit research papers, books, etc. It then conducted focus groups among Dallas PD officers and supervisors and studied Dallas PD pursuit statistics for 2004 and 2005.

The policy states, "The officer must always base the decision to pursue on probable cause, known facts and circumstances that can be articulated by the officer." The officer is expected to consider "such things as the nature and seriousness of the offense, or suspected offense, and be consciously aware of weather conditions, traffic control devices, character of the neighborhood (residential or business), traffic volume, and road and vehicle conditions."

When an officer initiates a pursuit and calls the dispatcher, the dispatcher will assign a field supervisor, who monitors the pursuit and can join it, if necessary. That supervisor also can discontinue the pursuit if the known circumstances or facts don't justify continuing it, actions increase the danger to the officers or the public, or "the risk to any person of injury, collision or death outweighs the immediate need to apprehend the offender." It's also the supervisor who authorizes the deployment of tire deflation devices. (See "Tire deflation technology" on Page 40.)

Other agencies update theirs

The Orange County Sheriff's Office in Orlando, Florida, regularly updates its policy governing the conduct of deputies related to vehicle apprehensions and pursuits written in 1995. The most recent sets of revisions were in 2003 and 2006, according to Cpl. Tim Gillespie of the agency's training division.

"In May 2005, a person with an extensive criminal history was driving a stolen vehicle and attempted to evade Orange County deputies," Gillespie recalls. "At one point he failed to stop for a red light at an intersection, striking a vehicle containing a brother and sister, killing them. In an effort to leave no question about the duty to all citizens, the vehicle apprehension/pursuit policy was again reviewed, revised and amended.

"For the 2003 revision, we used a committee of several Orange County Sheriff's Office subject matter experts and a community activist whose daughter was tragically killed by a felon being pursued for aggravated battery with a firearm in 2001," he continues. "For the 2006 revision, portions of definitions were crafted after the IACP model definition of vehicle pursuit. Several other law enforcement agencies' policies were culled for a thorough understanding of the topic. A final product was submitted to Orange County's administrative staff and reviewed by in-house subject matter experts."

He notes that after training completed in March, feedback from those in attendance resulted in some minor changes, so the new revisions have been in affect since April.

The Orange County Sheriff's Office general order sets out specific criteria as to threshold crimes for which a vehicle pursuit can be undertaken. "Those are violent forcible felonies as defined in Florida State Statutes," Gillespie explains. "Beyond that, the safety of all involved is constantly monitored by the deputies, their supervisors and the watch commander. Significant factors when considering a vehicle pursuit include vehicular and pedestrian traffic, the ability to maintain contact with the supervisor, and many others. The list is suggestive and never meant to override the immediate concern of the deputy — to ensure safety."

The pursuit policy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was issued almost 30 years ago. "Department leadership, as well as the Pursuit Review Board and members of the Precision Driver Training Unit are involved in updates," explains Capt. Travis Yates. "Recent revisions conform to the IACP model pursuit policy adopted in 1996. We look at the policy each year and evaluate it. That's important for every agency to do. While we haven't changed it recently, we look at officers' actions and pursuit statistics to determine whether it needs to be modified."

If a pursuit moves into a situation that might endanger others, the officer and supervisor can terminate it. "Our policy also mandates the termination of a pursuit if our helicopter is present," he says. "This has worked very well. As officers back away from the pursuit, the suspect will normally slow down and stop. The helicopter crew will then relay that location to officers on the perimeter."

In 2005, the Tulsa Police Department terminated more than 19 percent of pursuits: officers terminated 5 percent, supervisors 5 percent and 9 percent were ended by the presence of the helicopter.

"We must take the issue of police pursuits and police collisions seriously," Yates advises. "The most dangerous part of an officer's job is not the calls he goes to but the car he drives. Vehicle collisions and pursuits are killing more officers than anything else."

He adds, "Our mentality must change. Pursuit and collision deaths do not have to be a price that we pay. It shouldn't take the media pressing the issue or the death of a civilian for departments to change the way they do business."

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has had a written pursuit policy since the 1960s. "It's been revised continually and modified to comply with any legislative changes that have occurred," says Sgt. Robert Reid. "In addition to department personnel, the LAPD reports to a civilian oversight committee known as the Police Commission. It has the final review of any policy changes."

He mentions that in 1994 the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training developed a set of pursuit guidelines to assist California agencies in developing individual pursuit policies. The policy was revised in April 2005 to incorporate the use of tire deflation strips and the Pursuit Intervention Technique (PIT) as options to officers in pursuit. "At the same time, the Police Commission modified our policy to exclude going into pursuit of a violator solely for a traffic infraction," he says.

While an officer can initiate a pursuit, as it continues the assigned supervisor provides management oversight to determine whether to continue or stop the pursuit. "In California we also use the Balance Test as a guide," Reid explains. "The Balance Test can best be described as balancing the seriousness of the crime and the danger the pursuit poses to the public. This decision-making process is taught through the use of scenario training and testing."

Training is vital

"Police pursuits are the most dangerous action an officer can take. It is one of the few police actions that not only place the officer and suspect in danger but every civilian on the roadway as well," Yates says. "Departments must provide driver training on a regular basis and ensure that their pursuit policy provides the safest environment for officers and citizens."

In Tulsa, officers participate in a 10-hour course every 24 months. The Tulsa Police Precision Driving Unit has 25 part-time driving instructors and conducts more than 50 training days per year for police officers in the region. "Upon an at-fault collision, a driving instructor will ride with the officer on duty, as well as giving he or she a full-day driving course," says Yates, who both owns and moderates

The LAPD also combines classroom training with practical application behind the wheel and with driving simulators. "The simulators allow officers to experience the effects of their decisions without risk to themselves or the public," Reid explains. "Officers are placed in simulated pursuits that require decision making based on the Balance Test, and are then given the opportunity to review their pursuit, the decisions they made and the results of those decisions."

Besides 40 hours of academy police vehicle drivers' training, the LAPD trains whenever the make and models of the vehicles change, and that's on both the new and the existing fleet vehicles.

In Florida, the state requires 48 hours of driver training in the academy. The Orange County Sheriff's Office gives 24 hours of training before new hires are allowed to operate an agency vehicle. "Beyond that, every deputy receives eight hours of training every other year in law enforcement vehicle operations," Gillespie says. "Training is done in the classroom and on the driving range, but the time deputies spend driving is maximized."

Classroom training only covers policy review and briefing on the day's activities. "During the 2003-2004 training cycle, the emphasis was pursuit decision making, the dynamics of stress on driving and practical application of tactics," he notes. "During the 2005-2006 training, we progressed to actual practical exercises involving vehicle pursuits, felony stops, deployment of Stop Sticks and other tactics."

His advice for other departments is to teach officers to drive by letting them drive. "Take the time, and expense, to train relevant and realistic scenarios they are likely to encounter in their tactical operations," Gillespie says. "Driving is a perishable skill which needs to be updated regularly. Poor judgment, bad habits, new equipment and revised policy are just some of the reasons to make sure each and every one of your deputies/officers has regular driver training."

He concludes, "Make the training staff maintain professional credentials and stay up-to-date on trends, case law and local training efforts. With the ever-increasing trend of law enforcement officers being hurt and killed in and around their vehicles, it's the responsibility of all members to take driving seriously. Always keep foremost: 'You can't assist if you don't arrive.' "

Kay Falk is an independent writer with more than 18 years of experience in writing for trade publications. She can be contacted at (920) 563-1511.