Mention pursuits to a group of cops and you’re likely to get a lot of reactions:
- A rush.
- A guaranteed collision.
- The only fun part of the job we have left.
- We can’t do it anymore.
Ask for the definition of pursuit and you’re likely to get an equal number of responses:
- A chase.
- A high-speed chase.
- An attempt to apprehend a moving vehicle.
- An attempt to elude.
- A failure to yield.
The list can be endless. But however you define it, pursuits are dangerous. This article looks at pursuits from three perspectives: some issues to consider when deciding to engage in a pursuit, a couple of U.S. Supreme Court cases that address pursuit issues, and driving tactics to think about if and when you get involved in a pursuit.
A Pursuit Scenario
Many police agencies limit high-speed pursuits to those known offenses that constitute violent felonies. Very few departments issue blanket prohibitions for pursuits of known violent felons. However, a part of the decision-making process must also include an assessment of the danger to the public from the at-large suspect. One question that needs asking is whether a greater risk exists in engaging the suspect in a high-speed pursuit.
I’m sure everyone would agree that a convenience-store robbery in which the clerk is shot constitutes a violent felony. Consider this scenario: Witnesses report the convenience-story robbery suspect, who by appearances is a hyped-up meth freak, has fled the scene in a late model Camaro. You track and eventually spot the vehicle. There’s no doubt this suspect is dangerous. You decide to pursue.
Let’s add some facets to the hypothetical. The pursuit proceeds to enter a residential area where the speed limit is 25 mph. The roads are wet from an earlier rain. Now, the dangerousness of the suspect hasn’t changed; he’s still the same tweaker from moments ago. But has the risk level for the pursuit increased? It sure has.
Let’s add a few more factors to the mix. It’s 1440 hrs on a Tuesday. There’s an elementary school down the road that let out 10 minutes earlier. This becomes a lot to think about. From a tactical standpoint, you must call it off. Maybe you get an air unit up or put out a broadcast to neighboring agencies. Smother the area with other cars (marked and unmarked). From a risk standpoint, however, you must terminate.
Risk Assessment 101
Before deciding to engage in any vehicle chase, you must weigh all the risks of initially engaging, and then continuing, in a high-speed pursuit. Just like the force or control continuum you use when deciding to employ force, vehicle pursuits have a matrix too, though not as well known. At one end, officers must look at the seriousness of the offense. At the other end, officers must weigh the severity of the offense against the level of risk the pursuit creates.
Minor traffic infractions are no longer routinely considered pursuable offenses, even if the risks are low. You re in a marked squad car, the streets are dry and hard, and the weather is perfect. Traffic is non-existent and the road character straight. If a violator commits a minor traffic infraction and decides not to pull over after a few miles/minutes of Code 3, you probably should let this one go. The same standard applies for non-violent misdemeanants, such as shoplifters and bad-check paper hangers.
However, when the known offender is a violent felon who poses a significant threat to the public if allowed to escape, the pursuit decision-making matrix gets a little more complex. When the risks are low (marked squad, dry and stable highway surfaces, good weather, no traffic and a straight road), most department policies (and state courts) say no problem in pursuing as long as you continually assess those risks.
Keep in mind, the level of risk can change quickly. It can rise from low to moderate and even high in the blink of an eye. Traffic flow can increase, the road may begin featuring curves, intersections may appear and the speed limit might drop from 70 mph to 45 mph. You must evaluate and assess whether it s wise to continue the pursuit. A good supervisor should also be listening to radio transmissions and should know if you re entering an area not conducive to continuing, such as a school zone, a factory with a shift letting out or a road construction zone.
Decision-making grows even more critical when the risk factors escalate from moderate to high. Even violent felons may have to get a pass when a chase enters a heavily traveled business district with numerous pedestrians, speeds become excessive or the weather creates dangerous conditions. Pursuits require constant risk assessment.
Are You Prepared
When it comes to pursuit driving, you must consider the dangers inherent in driving beyond the level of your training. If the last pursuit training you ve had since the academy has included nothing more than a precision parking course driving around little orange cones, I’d give a lot of thought to engaging in a pursuit, even with a violent dangerous felon.
With the advent of anti-lock braking systems (ABS), full-front and side-impact air bags, and front-wheel-drive police vehicles, departments must offer frequent, recurring pursuit driver training to all officers. This is particularly important for highway patrol units that may have gone to slick-roofed Mustangs and Camaros, or super-sized SUVs. The feel and maneuverability of these vehicles aren’t the same as a Ford Crown Vic or a Chevy Impala.
Weight and wheel base also play a significant role in high-speed vehicle operation. If your pursuit training has taken place in a 3,700-lb. Impala with a short, 110″ wheel base, but you patrol in a 5,400-lb. Chevy Tahoe PPV with a longer one, you will have some problems with control should you embark on a high-speed pursuit. Asking officers to engage in high-speed driving in a vehicle they haven’t taken on an EVOC track is just asking for trouble. Most pursuit-driving instructors will tell you even something as minor as hand placement on the steering wheel becomes a major teaching point when factoring in front/side impact air bags. Put together, it becomes a lot to think about.
Pursuits in Court
OK, let’s talk legal issues for just a minute. I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice or a legal interpretation on case law, but it is important background information you should know about. There s no doubt both the U.S. Supreme Court cases Sacramento v. Lewis (1998) and Scott v. Harris (2007) have had a favorable impact on police pursuit liability. In Lewis, the Court affirmed that high-speed pursuits designed not to harm suspects physically do not violate the 14th Amendment due process clause. However, Lewis also made it clear that police agencies must train their officers properly when it comes to pursuits so street cops know when and when not to engage.
Scott v. Harris is heralded as a victory for the controversial point immobilization technique (PIT) maneuver. In this case, the Court held that ramming to end a pursuit of a dangerous fleeing motorist whose actions clearly pose a threat to innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.
As a point of interest, attorney Laura Scarry wrote a fantastic piece in the July 2007 issue of Law Officer on the recent Scott v. Harris decision. Check it out. It would behoove all to review her conclusions and thoughts on that decision, or conduct a roll call training session on it. With new state and federal case law coming down all the time, pursuit policy must be reevaluated frequently to ensure consistency with these legal issues.
Paving the Way Forward
Finally, some closing thoughts. First, if your agency doesn’t have a pursuit matrix or continuum as a part of its pursuit policy, consider developing one yourself.
Second, if your department isn’t interested in conducting an in-service training program on pursuits or doesn’t consider it important because of a prohibitive policy on pursuits, consider seeking some training on your own. There are many resources available. The Michigan State Police Precision Driving Unit (PDU) not only offers training for its own troopers, but conducts instructor courses in pursuits (including PIT training) for outside agencies, too. The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Phoenix, Ariz., also offers courses in police pursuits to law enforcement officers.
Third, educate yourself in the legal issues of pursuits. Read Scarry’s column on Scott v. Harris. Read the Court’s decision in Sacramento v. Lewis and see what it said on individual officer liability and the need for agencies to train officers in pursuit tactics. Then, see how these cases mesh with your department’s policy on pursuits.
County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 US 833 (1998).
Scott v. Harris, 127 S.Ct. 1769 (2007).