By Chief Joel Shults
“In a world where decisions are driven by data and evidence, pursuits would be restricted and used as a tactic only for the most serious offenders. However, the world of law enforcement is influenced not only by evidence, but also by history, organizational culture, law enforcement traditions, old-fashioned mindset, “best” practices, and politics,” according to Dr. Geoffrey Alpert in “Police Pursuit Driving: Policy and Research.”
Alpert notes that “best practices” are often those that are commonly accepted but lack a foundation in research.
Assumptions about pursuits
Many officers and citizens acknowledge the dangers of police pursuits but balance the risks with the need to apprehend dangerous offenders.
Many supervisors, policy makers and risk managers believe that there are very few circumstances that justify a high-speed pursuit. Both groups imagine a huge financial payout if a pursuit goes wrong and an innocent bystander is hurt.
What each person envisions when police pursuits come to mind is likely subjectively different. Popular reality television and live news coverage portray the excitement and drama of wild chases garnering high ratings. Some recall that America’s worst home-grown terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, was captured by Oklahoma Trooper Charlie Hanger for a license plate violation. Others flash to headlines like “Three killed, five injured in KC wreck caused by Jeep fleeing police.”
What we don’t know about police pursuits
It is not likely that we know how many pursuits really happen since those with no injury or property damage may not generate much in the way of paperwork. Pursuits reported by law enforcement may not be representative of all the pursuits that happen. While there are nationwide voluntary reporting systems and some states with mandatory reporting, there is no clearinghouse with accurate national data on pursuits.
We also don’t know:
- What impact does making fleeing and eluding a serious crime have on offender behavior?
- What impact does proactive policing have on the number of pursuits started in targeted areas where known offenders are active?
- What characteristics in offenders are highly correlated to their decision to stop and comply, or flee from police? Based on California data, 71 percent of pursuits result in an apprehension, but what number of those was after termination due to voluntary surrender or termination due to a crash or disabled vehicle?
What we know about police pursuits
As stated in Alpert’s book, the critical question is what benefit is derived from a pursuit compared to the risk of a crash, injury, or death whether to members of the public, officers, or suspects? Has research told us anything we didn’t already know about pursuits that can guide policy? Yes:
- Defining a pursuit is a significant issue in today’s officer response and justification to fleeing vehicles. A major pursuit management task force report published by the Department of Justice in 1998 states a research challenge still true today, that, “There are virtually unlimited variables that significantly impact a police pursuit. Variables such as weather and road conditions, population density, proximity to other agencies, communications, types of vehicles involved, availability of air support, urban or rural conditions, speeds, local policies, and community attitudes.”
- Surveys of citizen attitudes may find more support for pursuits than among law enforcement officers because of the perception of the crime control value in apprehending criminals who flee.
- About half of all high-speed pursuits last less than 2 minutes and most last less than 6 minutes according to a 2017 National Institute of Justice report. Pursuits lasting 1 to 4 minutes accounted for 68 percent of all pursuits and 73 percent of all pursuit-related collisions.
- Based on California pursuit data for the 3-year period of 1994 through 1996, a collision occurred in 26 percent of all pursuits. Over one half of all pursuit-related collisions occurred in pursuits lasting 1 to 2 minutes; more than 73 percent occurred in pursuits lasting 1 to 4 minutes; 83 percent of the collisions occurred in pursuits lasting 6 minutes or less.
- To impact a substantial number of pursuits (47 percent) and pursuit-related collisions (52 percent), a technology would need to be deployed within the first 2 minutes of a pursuit. A technology that takes only 6 minutes to arrive on scene and be deployed would have the potential to impact only 21 percent of all pursuits and only 17 percent of all pursuit-related collisions.
- Alpert quotes National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fatality reports to show “at least one person will die every day of the year in a police pursuit, with approximately 30 percent of those deaths being an innocent bystander. These data also show that less than 2 percent of the deaths are police officers and the majority of fatalities are those in vehicle fleeing the police.”
Changing policy and agency culture
One significant finding from Alpert’s research is that changing pursuit policy does not make an immediate behavior change in the behavior of its officers.
In examining a large agency’s effort to reduce pursuits, researchers discovered that peer criticism of officers who disengaged from pursuits, and a pervasive attitude among officers that no one gets away, resulted in a large number of policy violations. Addressing the problem, the administration changed its training, used local data to validate the need for a new policy and engaged veteran officers to testify to the need for the policy. In addition, violations resulted in consistent disciplinary action. As new officers accepted the policy and senior officers lost interest in engaging in risky pursuits, the agency found an 80 percent reduction in pursuits with no discernable rise in crime.
Training and technology advances
The role of technology in reducing the number and length of pursuits has been a promising area of research for many years. Two of these areas are scientific advances in devices to stop vehicles and technology used for driver training.
From the now common road spike tire deflators to various electronic disruptors, researcher and product developers continue to seek solutions for stopping vehicles.
Electronic devices include portable discharge devices that must be positioned in the path of a fleeing vehicle on the roadway, creating some of the same safety concerns as the deployment of mechanical deflators. These devices create short bursts of electromagnetic impulses designed to destroy a vehicle’s electronics. A directed energy device using microwave energy has been shown to stall a vehicle without interrupting medical devices such as pacemakers, and without being as close to the suspect vehicle as spikes.
A variety of capture devices use mechanical devices deployed from the front of a patrol car, requiring the police driver to get very close to the suspect vehicle.
Tracking devices using GPS, which are a feature on some existing models from the manufacturer, or which can be launched from a patrol car to externally attach to a fleeing vehicle by some pneumatic means, are designed to allow law enforcement alternative interdiction tactics to mitigate property damage, injuries or loss of life. Additionally, some automotive manufacturers have features that can slow the vehicle down to prevent high-speed pursuits and remotely block the ignition from being restarted once it has been turned off.
On the driver training side, studies have shown the benefits of using driver simulation technology to develop skills in a variety of scenarios that allow instructors to provide feedback and guidance to the learner without risk and costs of damage or injury on a training track. Policy can help an officer decide whether to initiate a pursuit or terminate one, but the critical factor in the execution of a pursuit is how well the officer performs based on their training. In a study comparing novice law enforcement drivers to experts, several deficiencies became apparent. Novice drivers showed little skill in anticipating how a pursuit would develop, understanding how other drivers are affected by the pursuit, inability to work as a team with dispatch and other officers, and they allowed for no margin of error. These are all areas that can be addressed with cost efficiency by using simulation technology.
It is clear that assessment of the risks and benefits of police pursuits can be based on measurable data to guide policy toward the balance between arresting offenders and avoiding harm to innocents along the way. As research and technology progresses, the daily toll of crashes related to police pursuits may be destined to come to an end.
About the Author
Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and Bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.