I was recently given an interesting report entitled Police Pursuits In An Age of Innovation and Reform, compiled by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). The IACP has been very active on this issue for more than a decade—their Model Pursuit Policy which was introduced in 1996.
In 1998, the National Institute of Justice formed the Pursuit Management Task Force to expand the research on Police Pursuits. One of several recommendations made in that report was the need for “a national model for collection of pursuit statistics.” In response to that suggestion the IACP began the Police Pursuit Database Project in 2000. The goal of that project was to create an internet based system where police agencies could submit information about their vehicle pursuits and in turn have access to all of the data from other agencies that was being placed into the database. The sharing of this information would have the potential to help agencies model their pursuit policy and training according to the trends they were seeing within the database.
The concept was phenomenal and in 2007 the IACPvbi commissioned a report designed to analyze the 7,737 vehicle pursuit reports that had been placed into the Police Pursuit Database. Below is a summary of the IACP report along with my personal observations on the issue.
The Importance of Pursuits
Vehicle pursuits are no doubt one of the most dangerous activities that occur in law enforcement. Pursuits are particularly unique in that their dangers are often aimed directly at innocent victims; studies suggest that more than 300 civilians are killed each year in police vehicle pursuits. Despite the dangers, all but just a few agencies across the country have continued the practice of vehicle pursuits. Obviously the function of crime control and apprehending criminals is the reason why vehicle pursuits continue but agencies must balance the need to apprehend criminals versus the danger that is placed on society. Several court cases through the years combined with an increased awareness of the dangers of vehicle pursuits have caused more police agencies to restrict their police pursuits. While those restrictions range greatly from a “violent felony only” policy to specific categories of evaluation before a pursuit can continue, these restrictions have no doubt minimized the dangers to our officers and the communities they serve.
Along with the restrictive policies, modern professional agencies are increasingly moving towards a more proactive approach to fighting crime rather than the traditional approach of reacting to crime. This new approach combined with technology has had a positive effect in many jurisdictions in lowering the crime rate but they can also increase the number of vehicle pursuits. For instance, a COMPSTAT management approach of deploying officers to “hotspots” of crime will no doubt increase the chances an officer will engage in a vehicle stop where a criminal may flee. Computers in cars with the ability to check license plates, etc. likely increase the chances a stolen car or wanted subject would be located in a vehicle, which could create additional vehicle pursuits then a mere reactive approach to crime produces.
The IACP Report summarizes the concerns above as “…a move towards more proactive policing as well as the increased use of information, analysis, and information technologies – provide a contemporary context for police pursuits. Not only does a shift toward proactivity have the potential to alter the reason, situation, and perceptions of pursuits, but the advent of increased use of information technologies and data in police agencies improves the ability of the police to monitor, analyze, and assess pursuit practices.”
Police Pursuit Research
Through the years I have looked extensively at Police Pursuit Research and while it is limited, it has always been helpful in the development of policy and training. The pioneer in this research through the years has been Dr. Geoffrey Alpert with the University of South Carolina. I have met Dr. Alpert and serve on a current committee with him and his passion and care for the subject is undaunted. While I enjoy giving him a hard time ab out the fact that he has never actually being in a vehicle pursuit, his contribution in this area of law enforcement has been tremendous.
The majority of his research was cited in this IACP report and while the specific details of each report were not listed in this report and cannot be listed in this particular article, there are some common trends in the entire body of research that should be discussed.
• The compiled research suggests that the odds of a negative outcome in police pursuits were 30 percent. I have observed this in my limited evaluation of several agencies. Approximately one-third of police pursuits end in a collision, injury or property damage.
• The most common cause for suspects fleeing in a vehicle was auto theft. A 1998 study interviewed pursuit suspects and 32 percent of them stated they ran because the car was stolen. Once again, I have personally seen that trend to be true within my own agency and others.
• Research suggests that that the reason for the initiation of police pursuits was related to traffic offenses. While the actual charge placed on the suspect is almost always more severe than traffic I have seen this exact same trend in every agency that I have looked at.
• There is also very little information that suspects would flee at a greater rate if agencies adopted more restrictive pursuit policies. This is the most frequent excuse I hear for agencies not wanting to restrict their pursuit policies. In recent years I have payed close attention to those agencies that have restricted their pursuits and have received very little feedback that more suspects flee based on these new guidelines.
Despite the past research there remain many questions still not answered and departments remain skeptical to change policy and practices based on such a limited body of research on the issue. Not to mention that not one past research project had data that exceeded 86 agencies with the vast majority only looking at one agency.
The IACP report specifically asks that agencies make their decisions on pursuit policy more evidenced based by using the information from the existing data or their own. A 2000 study by Dr. Alpert titled “Police Pursuits: What We Know” cites Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as saying: “This far, many police leaders, officers, policy makers, and the public have been trying to answer questions without the benefit of comprehensive research. Policies (Pursuit) have been made stricter or more lenient based on isolated pursuit incidents, or on assumptions about how law violators decide whether or not to flee from the police.”
The concerns raised by Chief Kerlikowske and others only reiterate the importance of what the IACP is doing with the Police Pursuit Database. That system is currently voluntary but think of the power the information could give our law enforcement leaders and trainers in making sound decisions if the database was used on a more frequent, possibly mandatory basis.
The IACP Police Pursuit Database
As mentioned previously there have been approximately 7,737 vehicle pursuits entered into the IACP database since inception that represent 56 agencies from 30 states. While this is obviously a very limited sample, the data from these pursuits do tell a story worth discussing.
• The top three reasons for the initiation of a pursuit were traffic offenses (42.3 percent), stolen vehicle (18.2 percent) and suspicion of DWI (14.9 percent). It should be noted that for those agencies that engage in police pursuits for felony crimes only, 16.1 percent of the pursuits were initiated for those crimes.
• 23.5 percent of the pursuits ended in a negative fashion, involving a collision, injury or property damage. 9 percent of the pursuits ended in an injury to the officer, suspect or innocent bystander.
• The pursuit collision rate was higher (29 percent) in dusk situations than in the day (20.5 percent) or at night (25 percent). It should be noted that only 4.5 percent of the total pursuits occurred in dusk situations.
• The majority of police pursuits exceeded speeds of 25 mph over the speed limit and not surprising, the higher the speeds, the more likely injury occurred in the vehicle pursuit.
• The average maximum speeds in the pursuits were 66 mph although this piece of data was often left off by the agency for a variety of reasons. I have found that speeds in a pursuit are often a subject that officers and managers can be hesitant to discuss. Whether it is the fear of punishment or the potential for liability, we need to overcome this uncertainty. The law clearly gives officers the privilege of exceeding the speed limit with emergency equipment activated. In order to truly use data to help us, we must ensure that data is actually given and correct.
• The average length of the pursuit was 5.5 minutes and the data suggest what many of us already know. The longer a pursuit continues, the better chance it will end with a negative outcome.
• An interesting data component collected by the database was the race of the suspect. The top three races of those involved in a police pursuit were White (31 percent), African American (29.9 percent) and Hispanic (29.7 percent). It is unknown whether the race was known at the time the pursuit was initiated but in my experience, the race of the offender is rarely known until the completion of a pursuit.
• Pursuits were terminated for a wide variety of reasons with the suspect stopping comprising of the largest percentage (35.7 percent). Suspects were involved in a collision 18.4 percent of the time and the suspect escaped in 17.9 percent of the pursuits. The officer or supervisor discontinued the pursuit 17.6 percent of the time.
One of the most troubling data elements in the IACP report was the termination methods used in a pursuit. In 94.3 percent of the pursuits, there were no methods used and in just 3.4 percent of the pursuits, tire deflation devices were used. The PIT Maneuver was used to terminate less than one percent of all pursuits.
As stated before, a police vehicle pursuit is one of the most dangerous activities a law enforcement agency can engage in. Danger not only exists for the officer(s) and the suspect(s) but for every innocent citizen that happens to be on the road at the time of the pursuit. To comprehend that in 2009, we are not using termination methods to stop these pursuits is incomprehensible at best. Tire deflation devices are the most logical choice and the fact that they are only used in 3.4 percent of these pursuits tells me that they are not being provided to all officers in the course of their duty. The days of giving these devices to just supervisors, commanders, or to no one at all have to end. Tire Deflation Devices cost less than $500 per vehicle. I simply do not see where any excuse is acceptable.
One of the most successful means to end a pursuit is through tactical intervention such as the PIT Maneuver. Despite the success agencies have seen, we still see a lack of wide usage especially among our large urban police departments. I’ve heard just about every excuse to not use PIT than I can count but very of them are valid. Despite what television show you may have seen, when done correctly the PIT Maneuver is by far the most effective and safest means to end a pursuit than we currently have.
One note of advice, if you are reading this and you happen to disagree with me. Let me know what city you are in because I would rather my family drive through a town that wanted to stop pursuits through intervention rather than let them continue to drive around a city, placing countless innocent civilians in harms way. Think about this way. A man is wielding a rifle and freely walking the streets with innocent bystanders walking beside him. Will you let him continue to do that or will you use an intervention technique? Of course you would eliminate that threat to yourself and others. Than why are we as a profession not embracing the techniques that have been proven to be successful to end police pursuits?
The value of the IACP involvement in the important issue of police vehicle pursuits cannot be emphasized enough. The IACP is a powerful voice in the law enforcement profession and their input and opinion will resonate among many. For their involvement, they should be commended and praised.
This report was ultimately conducted to improve on the existing Police Pursuit Database Project. With only 56 participating agencies, the data continues to be limited and it only makes sense that what we can learn, while important, is limited in scope.
What does that mean for you as an instructor, manager, supervisor or officer? We should embrace this project and participate in it. I plan to include my agencies data knowing that maybe it can help others. Please think about including yours as well.
Read the complete IACP report by clicking here.
Participate in the research program being conducted by Dr. Alpert Studies by clicking here.