By Jason Hoschouer
Pursuits are an inherently dangerous aspect of police work. They are so dangerous, in fact, that many departments have issued a “no pursuit” policy.
Pursuit is not an endeavor to be taken lightly, and it is incumbent upon the officer involved to take all the likely risks into account when making the decision to pursue. These risks range from the internal and physiological to the external and mechanical. All can be managed with some planning and mindfulness.
Here are five of the most common risks officers face when engaged in a pursuit and what you can do about them.
The weather plays a huge role in an officer’s decision about whether or not to pursue. Depending on the time of year and location, you may be dealing with slick roads and poor visibility due to ice, snow or even fog.
Everything we do in a pursuit should be weighed against not only the safety of the public at large, but against our own sense of self-preservation as well. When rain is coming down in sheets or you can’t see much farther than the hood of your patrol car, the pursuit becomes significantly more dangerous.
Over the last five years, the second highest cause of death in line of duty deaths was automobile accidents. Between 2011 and 2015, 138 law enforcement officers lost their lives in automobile crashes.
It’s unclear how many of those LODDs were involved in pursuits, but the statistics still bear consideration. The fact is, wet weather (rain, snow, wind, fog, etc.) inherently adds an element of danger to an already dangerous situation.
One often overlooked factor that can add to the danger officers face is electronic devices. Your supervisor ringing your cell. Your mobile computer dinging with each new update. The dispatcher demanding constant updates.
Most of these things require your attention, but not necessarily at the very moment in which they ding, buzz or ring. These days, we are all hard-wired to respond to electronic stimuli as soon as possible, if not instantaneously. It’s a habit that will not benefit us while we are pursuing another vehicle.
This is why having at least two vehicles in a pursuit is advantageous. The first driver remains hyper-focused on pursuing the suspect vehicle, and the second is tasked with updating dispatch and responding to radio requests from other involved units or supervisors. This frees up the primary vehicle to focus his or her attention on a solitary target: the fleeing vehicle.
Many agencies allow for a specific amount of units to conduct a pursuit while the rest follow at a much safer distance. Make sure you are familiar with what your agency’s pursuit policy requires.
Tunnel vision, the phenomenon when our field of vision narrows due to intense focus, is a biological reaction. When we get that hot detail for a pursuit, the adrenaline hits us and all the blood flows to our extremities in preparation for a fight.
The problem is, that means there isn’t as much blood left in our brains. This is why our field of vision narrows.
The best way to fight that is two-fold. First, take some deep breaths. This will return oxygenated blood to the brain and allow you to think more clearly. Second, make sure to take in the surrounding area. Physically turn your head side to side when clearing intersections. This will help you break the laser-like focus on the vehicle you are pursuing.
Let’s face it. The public barely knows what to do when you pull up behind them in an attempt to get them to stop during a regular old traffic stop. It’s not terribly surprising that we can’t really predict what they’ll do when we are in a real pursuit.
Whether it’s another driver neglecting to move to the right, pulling to the center median or coming off a side street without looking, the general public can easily get in the way of an ongoing pursuit.
Pursuing officers need to remember that as much as we like to catch the bad guys, there are other factors at play. We bear a significant amount of liability when it comes to pursuits. It is incumbent upon the pursuing officer to decide if the dangers outweigh the advantages when it comes to the safety of the public. There is no shame in cancelling a pursuit when it simply gets too dangerous for the general public.
Whether we’re talking about incoming units joining the pursuit or other first responders, such as firefighters in their apparatus, we have to be aware that other units are likely to be in the area. Often, we simply don’t share the air with those other agencies, and that lack of communication can be deadly.
We’ve all heard about or seen video of two responding units colliding with one another in an intersection. This is why you should constantly have your head on a swivel (besides the benefit of breaking tunnel vision). If you’re the incoming unit, you need to be aware of the location and direction of travel of the pursuit.
Ultimately there isn’t much we can do to change the inherent dangers of pursuit driving, but if you remain vigilant and cognizant of the elements listed above, it will go a long way toward minimizing the dangers.
About the author
Jason Hoschouer is a law enforcement officer with an agency in the San Francisco Bay area in California. In addition to patrolling the streets as a motor officer, Hoschouer helps fellow LEOs with financial coaching through his company, The MotorCop Mindset. (For more information, text “DebtFree” to 66866). Jason has been blogging under the pseudonym “Motorcop” at motorcopblog.com since 2008 and also hosts a podcast, The Crossover Show, with a San Francisco FireFighter.