By Chief Joel Shults
A Department of Justice report issued in 2017 showed that during the time frame studied, nearly every day saw a death as a result of a police pursuit – out of over 1,300 pursuits per week.
In addition to a fatality for every 200 pursuits, there are also four serious injuries and numerous minor injuries. The person most at risk for injury in a pursuit is the suspect, with suspects suffering 76 percent of the injuries, officers 3 percent and uninvolved persons making up 21 percent of the injured.
Less than a third of pursuits are ended because the violator stopped, about the same percentage of pursuits that end in crashes or by some police intervention. Fewer than 10 percent of pursuits were started to apprehend a violent felon, but nearly 40 percent were due to impaired or dangerous driving behavior.
Given the courts’ view that force – including deadly force – can be justifiable to stop dangerous driving, these pursuits may be much more defensible than pursuits based on minor traffic offenses, which is the largest single reason for initiating a pursuit.
Courts analyze totality of decision-making factors
Nearly all departments have a pursuit policy, most of which outline specific criteria for continuing a pursuit, with the remaining 10 percent leaving the decision to the pursuing officer.
The highest rates of pursuits, measured by percent of officers engaging in pursuits, happen in the smallest populations. This also represents the departments with the highest likelihood of having no pursuit policy at all.
Most pursuit policies, and courts when considering reasonableness of pursuits, attempt to analyze a totality of factors present that the pursuing officer knew or should have known at the time of the decision to engage in or continue a pursuit rather than disengage or terminate a pursuit.
How much difference does it make whether a chase is on the freeway or a city street? Should policies differ based on the dynamics of highway versus street conditions? Are freeway pursuits inherently safer or more dangerous than those on city streets?
Freeway pursuit policy development
When creating policies for freeway pursuits, police administrators should consider the following
Length of the pursuit
Freeway (interstate, limited access) pursuits may have fewer risk factors but are likely to last longer than street pursuits.
A pursued driver’s anxiety level and carelessness are constantly increasing while in pursuit. As long as the driver is being pursued, the likelihood of a crash increases.
A well-trained officer will focus on strategy and related tactical interdiction methods to quickly overcome the adrenaline dump he or she feels when the chase starts. Earlier interdiction, with reliance on training and technology, results in a safer outcome.
Collision speed differentials
While freeway traffic is traveling faster than street traffic, collision speed differentials may be less than on other roadways.
The car I was driving was recently struck from behind by a car estimated to be traveling at 80 miles per hour. My speed was about 65 mph in the same direction. While the impact was significant, the fact that the speed difference was low and movement was in the same direction resulted in no injuries.
Vehicle safety construction is designed primarily for straight-line impacts, such as those most likely on freeways. The pursuing officer should avoid the wild passing maneuvers often seen in freeway pursuits by suspects and instead, as often seen in aerial views, maintain the optimal distances and straightest lines of travel. This can result in efficiencies and crash avoidance that is the advantage to the trained driver.
Activation of assets
Most pursuits are brief, but early activation of assets can add life-saving elements. These include getting air support where available, staging medical response and getting available ground units in place to redirect civilian traffic or to deploy pursuit-stopping devices or strategies with the use of technologies such as pursuit management devices or GPS tracking. These requests should be from supervisors or dispatchers to allow the first pursuing officer to concentrate on driving.
Additional safety considerations
An additional consideration is the absence of pedestrians, as well as the consistency of pavement and shoulders on freeways. Secondary roads are less likely to have wide shoulders and more likely to have curbs, grass or gravel that can cause a greater chance of loss of control to a car straying from the main roadway surface.
Secondary roads also have multiple intersections of other roads and private driveways, raising the risk of an intersection collision. Occasional use by pedestrians, bicyclists and animals provide more opportunity for fleeing and pursuing vehicles to encounter an unexpected obstacle.
For city streets, the presence of many intersections, frequently turning traffic, a variety of traffic control devices and traffic much slower than pursued and pursuing vehicles increases the probability of collision by multiplying the factors associated with crashes.
Termination of a freeway pursuit
As a chase ends either by compliance, collision or vehicle breakdown, closing speeds between the officer and suspect can require controlled braking and evasive maneuvers. Maintaining a straight path while braking will make best use of the laws of physics. Keeping all four tires on the same surface and taking advantage of the safety systems designed for straight-ahead crashes can provide the best control and protection if the officer must crash at a sudden, surprise termination.
The end of the pursuit is a critical phase. The pursuing officer may find injuries, traffic disruption or a struggle – even a gunfight. The tendency to rush up and apprehend the suspect is strong, but taking a position of cover and assessing the situation from a distance can create valuable time and space for tactical decision-making.
Tunnel vision can cause an officer to be oblivious to dangerous oncoming traffic as he or she exits their own patrol car, or to hidden passengers who might pose a threat or be in need of rescue. New decisions about the value of foot pursuits must be made based on known facts weighed against risks. Discipline on the part of assisting officers can avoid crossfire situations.
Since the ultimate focal point of any pursuit investigation will be the decision of the officer to start and stop, any factor the officer can cite to justify his or her decision could make a big difference in the outcome.
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.