In hot pursuit: The how and why of high-speed police chases
Several weeks ago, an arrestee slipped his handcuffs in front of him, crawled through a prisoner control screen and stole a Blackman-Leoni Township police car.
This escapee led police on a 70-mile-long pursuit down I-94 and US-23 at speeds up to 130 mph when traffic was of medium volume. The chase ended with minor injuries sustained by the suspect and a totaled Blackman-Leoni Township police SUV (Watch the patrol car video at MLive).
My compliments to the troopers, deputies and officers who pursued the alleged meth-cooking escapee. This case however leads many to wonder: When should the police pursue?
Police pursuits are not the fun friendly competitions depicted in many movies. They are dangerous and fraught with uncertainty. The pursuing officer has plenty of concerns as the chase continues, and the driver's seat of a police car is a very busy place during a pursuit.
First and foremost, the officer is thinking about public safety. Is this chase worth the risk? Every pursuit will have its own set of circumstances.
J. Scott Cole | Jackson Citizen Patriot
Most police departments guide their officers by adopting pursuit policies. Those policies run the gamut between an inflexible "no chase" policy to allowing officers to ram the pursued vehicle with a PIT (Pursuit Intervention Technique) maneuver. Though no two police agencies policies are the same, they all share certain characteristics to determine when a pursuit should be initiated, continued or terminated.
The first and foremost factor to determine the applicability of pursuit is the seriousness of the offense for which the suspect is being pursued. The police will chase a killer or someone with hostages at all costs because of the potential threat that person poses to the public. On the other end of the spectrum is the minor traffic offender.
Most police pursuits start with a minor traffic offense that escalates quickly as the driver attempts to flee. How many risks will an officer or police department take to catch a minor offender? Is it worth risking the safety of the citizens they are trying to protect to catch a "minor" traffic violator?
Officers must also consider where the pursuit is taking place. An empty expressway is the safest place, and a crowded downtown or school zone is the most dangerous.
Traffic conditions and time of day will enter into the uncertainty of the chase. Heavier traffic means more likelihood that a crash or multiple crashes will occur. Time of day or night is important because it will affect both traffic volumes and visibility.
Weather is a factor. Many years ago on an icy night, the surveillance unit I was working with staged a car crash to block the entrance/exit of Park Place Apartments to prevent a thief stealing electronics from Big George's from getting on the road. Our preferred method of ending a chase in that case was preventing it from starting.
The type of vehicle being pursued enters into the decision-making process. There are places a motorcycle can go that a full size police car can not. Mopeds, bicycles and scooters however are rather easy to overtake. On the other hand, full-size trucks, although less mobile, have a tremendous weight advantage over a police car trying to stop them.
In the case of the stolen Blackman-Leoni police car, the vehicle involved was a huge factor. The suspect had stolen a large, heavy police SUV that probably contained long guns (either a shotgun, patrol rifle or both). Clearly that police SUV had plenty of power and speed as it caused one pursing trooper's engine to blow.
The greatest uncertainty of a chase is the offender. If the offender is known to the police, the chase will often be terminated and the officer will submit reports to the prosecutor identifying the suspect. The prosecutor will authorize charges and a judge or magistrate will sign the warrants. The police can then go forth and arrest the suspect on terms the police can more easily control.
On the other hand, if the suspect is unknown to the police, that person must be caught. Unfortunately the offender poses the greatest uncertainty in any pursuit.
How far will that person go and what risk will that person take to get away from the police? What kind of ability or impairment — that is what kind of drug or alcohol intoxication — does the driver possess while operating a motor vehicle?
Is the driver a juvenile? If the driver is a juvenile, most police administrators frown on pursuing them because of the young driver's lack of ability and their reactions to the stress of the chase. From the officer's point of view, which is normally behind the driver and vehicle being pursued, how can they effectively tell if the driver is a juvenile?
The ability, training and experience level of the officers involved is also crucial in the decision-making process. Older officers may have slower reflexes, but experience has taught them tricks of the trade, and they are less likely to assume high risks for non-critical offenses.
Once the pursuit is initiated, the police officer becomes very busy inside the car. The officer must drive hard, mostly with one hand, because that officer must communicate to dispatch and other responding units. While driving the officer must broadcast the location, type of vehicle, vehicle description, number of occupants, reason for the chase, direction of travel and speed.
Sounds easy enough, but sometimes pursuing through city streets, officers have on occasion gotten the radio microphone cord wrapped around the steering wheel.
In the 1980s, the Dodge Diplomats driven by the Ann Arbor Police Department also had the nasty tendency to stall if the power brakes and power steering were operated at the same time while cornering. The problem was worse if the air conditioning was on.
Once those Diplomats stalled, the officer lost the power brakes and steering, thus producing new driving problems and the occasional Federal Communications Commission violation by the angered officer. "Brake fade" can also add some sphincter-tightening excitement for the pursuing officer.
It would be easy to say, for the sake of limiting injury and civil liability, that the police should not engage in high-speed pursuits. However if the police were restricted by such a policy, why would an offender ever stop for the police? Such a policy would greatly inhibit the identification and apprehension of criminals who would automatically have a safe zone if they could just get to a car.
Police pursuits can be ugly and dangerous, but they are necessary to enforce the law.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.
Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for AnnArbor.com. He also serves as the Crime Stoppers coordinator for Washtenaw County.