Police Foot Pursuits: Chasing the Rabbit

Law Enforcement Officers are required to abide by orders, policies, and laws. These are all beneficial as they provide standards for what LEOs can and cannot do. With societal changes, however, these measures are becoming stricter. The underlying issue is that guidelines cannot stipulate every individual aspect of an encounter with suspects. In particular, foot pursuits are a rapidly evolving encounter encompassed with unpredictability.

An Entirely New Dynamic
When an individual’s attention is attracted by a stimulus (e.g., suspect), they focus completely on that particular object. In the context in which we are speaking, officers engage suspects through a traffic stop, call for service, or consensual encounter. In the event the suspect decides to flee from the officer it creates an entirely new dynamic.

For example, when the suspect begins to run from the officer, the LEO’s attention does not move from the suspect, but becomes entirely fixated on that suspect, ultimately succumbing to tunnel vision.

According to Dr. Ron Martinelli Use of Force Instructor and Force Analyst, “Officers become emotionally captured in the event and have an instinctive reaction.” What does this mean? Officers will respond by immediately participating in the flight of the suspect by chasing them.

Dave Grossi, retired New York Police Lieutenant, agrees, “Foot pursuits are emotionally charged and dangerous events.” Your heart rate is beating rapidly, you’re sweating, breathing changes, and adrenaline is rising as you turn every corner uncertain of what is to come.

For Further Consideration
When I was in the police academy, foot pursuits and containment were not an in-depth area of instruction. I do not recall it being elaborated on beyond the physical action of running after a fleeing suspect and officers surrounding the area.

Jack Schonely, an expert in suspect tactics and perimeter containment, confirms, “One particular area of police work gets little or no attention in the training realm, how to successfully and safely apprehend a fleeing suspect on foot.” Law Enforcement professionals realize foot pursuits are learned by experience and trial & error.  

Personally, I recall my Field Training Officer saying that we are the hunters and they are the prey. It’s our job to track down the prey. Obviously as a LEO myself, I have participated in numerous foot pursuits. While taking part in these pursuits, I have witnessed new officers as well as veterans make mistakes. It is human nature to follow the stimulus or chase the rabbit as some refer to it.

Ways to Improve the Foot Pursuit
The following are recommendations for LEOs to keep in mind when it comes to foot pursuits. Due to its evolving nature, they are not meant to stipulate precise steps when in a foot pursuit.

Primary Officer
The primary officer is the individual initially conducting business with the suspect and they are the one the suspect runs from. For the primary officer, here are some recommendations to consider:

  • The officer must provide at minimum the description, location, direction of travel, and if there is a weapon. This is for officer safety as well as providing their backup and dispatch with pertinent information.
  • If there is time, provide the reason for giving chase. If you have already identified the suspect, it might be a good idea to get a warrant and make the arrest later.
  • Additional units should remain off the radio so the primary can continually provide updates. The primary may be able to dictate where additional officers should go, since normally they have current information about the suspect.
  • Keep in mind cover in the event the suspect commences a gun battle or launches an attack. Dave Smith, internationally recognized law enforcement trainer, presents what he says are “the basics”: 1. Do not run immediately behind a suspect, 2. Run wide, or quick peek, around corners, 3. If a suspect goes over a wall you go through the gate or over another part of the wall, 4. Do the unexpected, avoid the expected, and be unpredictable.

Secondary Officer/Sentinel

The secondary officer should be heading directly to the primary’s location so they are not alone. In the event the secondary cannot meet up with the primary, they can attempt to get ahead of the suspect.

  • The sentinels (Additional units/officers) should setup perimeter around the last known location of the suspect.
  • Establishing a perimeter will aid in reducing the area officers are searching.
  • If possible, the sentinels should position themselves at corners of buildings, streets, houses, etc., so they can watch two sides to gain greater benefit.
  • Officers responding to assist must be patient and not randomly swarm the area.
  • Setup a perimeter and maintain constant note of everyone in the area, entering and exiting.
  • Even if you observe the suspect it may be beneficial to retain your position and radio it in. Try not to chase the rabbit as soon as you see him/her.
  • A tactic that can be utilized is to turn on your lights and radio, then station yourself outside your patrol car behind cover. This will give the illusion that there is more officer presence.

Officers should consider expanding the perimeter beyond the immediate area in the event there is a misconception of the suspects’ last known location or they have slipped through the initial containment area. There is research indicating that suspects may conceal themselves near officers. Researchers also found suspects run continuously beyond the first block to hide themselves at a later time. Some do attempt to hide immediately after escaping officers’ sight. LEO’s should prepare for and anticipate an ambush because that is a reality, especially in a foot pursuit. 

The K-9 is an invaluable tool to have. Officers on perimeter must keep their position in order not to cause any issues for the K-9’s ability to track the suspect. The standard is to have one additional officer with the handler when searching with the K-9. This allows the handler to focus on the K-9 and the remaining officer(s) to secure the suspect. Other resources that aid the search are air support (drones, helicopter, aircraft), video surveillance, and thermal imaging.

The Search
Officers that are searching can begin by closing the gap between the sentinels and last known location of the suspect. Starting from the outside and working inward or initiating the search from last known location outwards is another tactic that can be used. SSGT. Ross MacInnes states that most suspects, when given the option of turning left or right during a spontaneous foot flight, will veer right, the suspect will probably make a series of right turns when presented with both options. His study also shows that if the suspect is forced to make several left turns because of natural barriers (fences, hedges, alleys, etc.) or police containment, he/she will probably stop and hide after about one or two turns. If there is a second suspect, he usually will hide fairly close to where suspect #1 hid. Suspect #2 will usually circle to the right and try to scope out what is happening between the officer and suspect #1.

When it comes to following or searching for the suspect, there are additional methods that LEOs have been taught to decrease fatal encounters. Steve Papenfuhs, retired San Jose Police Department Sergeant and CEO of Battalion Defense, provides these suggestions: get a view around the apex of the corner. There are two generally accepted methods of cornering “slicing the pie” or dynamic corner clear (“popping” or “snapping”).

Slicing the pie is a slow and deliberate method of corner clearing. In this method, the officer maintains a distance from the corner and leans into the threat area attempting to clear one “slice of the pie” at a time. Dynamic clear-in this case, the officer moves directly to the corner and in one dynamic movement pops around the corner with one eye and the muzzle of his weapon. I would suggest modifying this portion so the muzzle of the weapon is not out in front of you when performing a dynamic clear. This is not tactical and if the suspect is immediately abutting the apex, they can seize your weapon.

Think Before You Act-or React
I want to stress that these are merely recommendations based on my research and experience. To believe there is a systematic method for performing a foot pursuit will place the officer at risk. The circumstances can change instantaneously. Many policies that agencies currently use are similar in nature. They ask the officer to think about their safety and the safety of the public versus pursuing or not pursuing. Officers already have a million things going through their minds, so attempting to process something systematically when it is rapidly changing can be a complicated task.

This information is not meant to confuse or overload LEOs, but to encourage them to think before they act or react.  Keep in mind the suggestions made in this article are to help everyone make it home safely!

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