When the 'experts' have it all wrong
“A recent high-speed chase to catch a nonviolent criminal raises questions about when it’s OK to roll out tire-blowing spike strips.” That is the first thing I read as I opened up the first story that hit my screen on January 14, 2011 from a Google News Search for “Police Pursuits.” On a daily basis I try to pour over the various news outlets looking for stories that can help our profession in regards to emergency vehicle operations. The title of this seemingly harmless piece by the New Haven Advocate was “Did Police Overreact in I-95 Chase?”
If the first sentence didn’t get my attention the first paragraph would have. In a mocking, disrespectful fashion, the writer stated that:
“Six Connecticut drivers will soon be getting a belated Christmas gift from the Westport Police Department — a set of brand-new tires. The department’s generosity is the result of a chaotic police pursuit in the early morning hours of December 31st, during which “spike strips,” also known by the brand name Stop Sticks, took out half a dozen civilian vehicles traveling at high speeds on I-95.”
The opinion piece went on to interview two “chase experts” who said that the pursuit should have never happened and cited the fact that the suspect was wanted on non-violent crimes.
Let me state emphatically that I don’t know all the facts in this case. Neither do those so-called “experts” interviewed in that newspaper story. It may very well be the case that the pursuit should have never happened but it also may be the case that the officers involved and the agency did nothing wrong. Nevertheless, I understand that a former chief and advocate can only respond to what they are told about the incident.
They no doubt mean well but I believe we must be very careful to sit in the backseat of a high-speed police pursuit that occurred just two weeks ago with limited facts to go by and the feelings of real men and women behind the badge to consider.
Do police officers make mistakes? Yes, no doubt we are human and mistakes occur, but what I believe happens more often than not is these heroes are accused of wrongdoing when in fact they did nothing wrong. Time will tell whether that is the case here but if it is the case, I certainly hope the publication prints another article commending these officers and then consider waiting for facts before writing inflammatory statements in the future.
What we know is limited, but we do know some things and I will address those presently.
1.) Tire Deflation Devices are not the same thing as “tire-blowing spike strips.”
A simple internet search would have prevented this ridiculous statement. Stop Sticks and any other of the manufactured tire deflation devices do not blow out tires. In fact, the tires lose air in a controlled fashion and they are very safe for the driver of the vehicle affected. I have first hand knowledge of that. I’ve been in a car with tires struck (in training of course) and I have seen numerous suspect vehicles struck by tire deflation devices.
2.) When is it OK to “roll out” what we now know as tire deflation devices?
Let me state the answer to this as clearly as I can. If it is safe to do so, the officer is properly trained and you are in pursuit of a vehicle it is always ok to utilize tire deflation devices.
3.) But what about the innocent civilian vehicles?
What about them? What is the alternative? Continue to chase and not use the technology to bring that pursuit to a controlled speed and ultimate end? Our officers cannot be worried about hitting a vehicle not involved in the pursuit. We should try to avoid it but ultimately the goal is to deflate the tires of the suspect. If that means, one, two, or even six other cars are affected, that’s OK.
There is an administrator reading this right now and he or she is shaking their head. They may even have something bad to say about me. That’s OK too. Keep reading because I am going to explain why you as a leader must support your officers in these situations.
What Is The Goal?
If the goal of a pursuit is to limit the dangers to the public then you want to utilize tire deflation devices. They are a powerful and mandatory tool if you are going to be involved in vehicle pursuits. You have two options with them. Wait to use them until the suspect vehicle is the only vehicle on the roadway for blocks or miles or strike the suspect vehicle as quickly and safely as you can. Keep in mind you can wait and while you wait the suspect controls the pursuit. They can drive as fast as they want and go wherever they want. Up until you deflate their tires, they actually think they can outrun the radio, helicopter and numerous vehicles pursuing. But when those tires go flat, something else happens. Their will to run tends to also go flat and often times the end of the pursuit is near or in the very least a high speed pursuit turns into a low speed drive.
If I had my choice to end that pursuit safely at minute one with a few civilian cars needing tires or chase them to minute ten, give me minute one any day of the week. My agency issued every patrol officer Stop Sticks several years ago. We were clear in the initial training and the message came from the top of the organization.
“Don’t worry about civilian or police vehicles. Tires can be replaced but lives cannot.”
The message was clear and it needed to be. There have been numerous tragedies involving officers entering the roadway to retrieve tire deflation devices so they could avoid striking an “innocent” vehicle. It is senseless to protect tires when lives are the priority. I know of an agency that recently disciplined an officer because he ran over tire deflation devices in a pursuit. This is a huge mistake and an utter failure when it comes to leadership. The only message that was sent in that situation is in the next pursuit, the devices will never leave the trunk or an officer is going to take an unnecessary risk to get those devices out of the roadway so another vehicle is not struck.
It’s About Officer Safety
The officers from the Norwalk Police Department and across the country should know this. Never put yourself in harm’s way because you are worried about tires. It is my fear that we do that very thing. Officers read articles such as the one I am discussing and they take risks just to avoid being the target of an overzealous writer.
Tire deflation devices should be utilized safely and after the proper training. Third party vehicles should be avoided if necessary but not if you are trading a much more dangerous situation for that avoidance. The goal is public safety and if that means a few sets of tires has to be replaced then that is ok. I will gladly replace six sets of tires if a tragedy can be avoided or dangers limited. That is exactly what tire deflation devices do. They reduce dangers and limit potential tragedy.
“Should we chase for non-violent crimes?” is typically a question posed by someone who isn’t the victim of the suspects “non-violent” crime.
As I said earlier, the facts are limited but we do have some. The suspect drove by the police station at 0100 hours with his headlights out. The suspect refused to stop, had warrants for his arrest, and struck a police vehicle during the pursuit. It is also assumed that the pursuit took place on the highway.
Each pursuit must be evaluated with several considerations. What is the likelihood of injury and harm to the public if the pursuit continues? I was not in this pursuit so I have no grounds to answer that question but we do know some important facts that may have led the agencies to pursue a non-violent criminal.
• The suspect was wanted
• It was one o’clock in the morning which makes it likely that traffic was light
• The pursuit took place on a highway — with a lack of intersections, stop signs, etc. the danger to the public is reduced
• There were multiple officers attempting to deflate the tires which tells me this pursuit will likely be short
The shorter the pursuit, the safer the pursuit. With the likelihood of a short pursuit at 0100 hours on a roadway without intersections and light traffic, it is not impractical to permit a vehicle pursuit. It would not have been wrong to stop the pursuit and it was not necessarily wrong to continue it.
I could continue (and there are no doubt other factors I am not aware of) but the point I want to close with is this: Police vehicle pursuits are not as cut and dry as some would have us think. They are dangerous, but there are many dangerous aspects of our jobs. We must do our jobs with the safety of the public as the priority but we must do our jobs.
Sometimes our jobs entail chasing a vehicle. When it does, let’s do it as safe as possible, with proper training and with proper technology. If the Norwalk Police Department did that, then I’m fine with the vehicle pursuit, regardless how many tires had to be given as a “Christmas gift.”