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Spike Strips pose element of danger, while making vehicle pursuits safer

by Craig W. Floyd

During the early morning hours of November 28, 2007, sheriff's deputies in Palm Beach County (FL) were dispatched to track down a reported stolen vehicle. A tape chronicling the event and posted on the PalmBeachPost.com website shows that four minutes and 50 seconds after the initial report, deputies spotted the stolen car. Another four minutes later, deputies requested to use tire-deflating spike strips to help end the pursuit.

At nine minutes and 55 seconds into the pursuit, a supervisor ordered Deputy Donta Manuel to "go ahead with the Stop Sticks." Less than 15 seconds later, a deputy yelled, "We got a hit!" signifying that the tire deflation device had disabled the stolen car. Seconds later, a supervisor orders over the radio, "Clear 'em. K-9's coming on the left." Ten seconds later, a K-9 officer responding to assist in a patrol cruiser struck and killed Deputy Manuel, 33, and Deputy Jonathan Wallace, 23, as they ran onto the roadway to remove the spike strips.

The tragic deaths of Deputies Manuel and Wallace have raised questions about the dangers posed to officers when deploying tire deflation devices. According to Tulsa (OK) Police Captain Travis Yates, a law enforcement driver training expert and certified instructor in tire deflation devices, "While these tools can ultimately make a pursuit safer for the community, there is an element of danger in using them. Officers should take great caution when utilizing any tire deflation device," he added.

A little more than a decade ago, law enforcement officers began using tire deflation devices as a way to reduce the dangers associated with high speed vehicle pursuits. Law enforcement has long been concerned about the risks posed by vehicle pursuits, not only to the officers and criminal suspects, but to innocent citizens. In fact, an average of 323 people died each year nationwide in police pursuits between 1982 and 2004, according to a report published by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis in 2005. Based on records kept by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), there have been more than 250 law enforcement officers killed in vehicle pursuits dating back to the first in 1921 involving Traffic Officer Wellington L. Aubery of the Fresno County (CA) Sheriff's Department.

Policy changes at law enforcement agencies across the country have limited vehicle pursuits, but many still occur. A database kept by the International Association of Chiefs of Police includes information about 7,657 pursuits by 57 different law enforcement agencies between January 1, 1980, and April 24, 2007. Of those documented cases, about half ended in two minutes or less, which means that if an intervention technique is going to be used to terminate the pursuit, it must be readily deployable. That is why spike strips have become such a popular option for law enforcement. In fact, Richard J. Ashton wrote earlier this year in "The Police Chief" that "tire deflation devices were the method selected in 56 percent of interventions recorded in the IACP Police Pursuit Database and appear to be the most widely used pursuit termination technology available today."

Cliff Robson, a partner with Stop Tech Ltd., the maker of a popular tire deflation device called "Stop Sticks," says his company has documented evidence of more than 13,500 successful deployments of their product since 1996. The device costs about $400 and includes 80 feet of cord so officers can get far away from the roadway during deployment. A yank of the cord after a successful "hit" is all that is normally necessary to remove the spike strips from the roadway, according to Mr. Robson.

The recent deaths of Deputies Manuel and Wallace are stark evidence, though, that the deployment of tire deflation devices can still pose serious dangers to the officers using them. Unfortunately, there are a number of other law enforcement tragedies that help to make this case. On July 31, 2007, California Highway Patrol Officer Douglas "Scott" Russell had just deployed a spike strip to try to stop a fleeing suspect, when the car swerved toward Officer Russell and struck him, causing fatal injuries.

In Cincinnati, just a few days before the two Palm Beach County deputies were struck and killed, Sergeant Bryce Bezdek was severely injured while deploying spike strips in an effort to end the pursuit of three drug suspects who were being chased by police.

All totaled, there have been 14 law enforcement officers killed while deploying tire deflation devices, according to NLEOMF records. The first was John Creegan, a deputy sheriff with the Orange County (FL) Sheriff's Office. He was struck and killed by an 18-year-old car thief on May 29, 1996, while deploying a spike strip.

On June 11, 1998, Kansas City (KS) Police Sergeant Rick Asten was deploying a spike strip when a man driving a stolen vehicle swerved his car and intentionally struck the 14-year police veteran. In 2001, New Mexico State Police Patrolman Lloyd R. Aragon Sr. suffered the same tragic fate while deploying road spikes to stop a stolen vehicle. Later that same year, Austin (TX) Police Officer Clinton Hunter, 22, was deploying a tire deflation device when he was struck and killed by a drunken felon out on parole.

Five officers died in 2003 deploying spike strips. They included: Deputy Dennis R. McElderry of the Davis County (IA) Sheriff's Office; Deputy Sheriff John W. Musice of the Wilson County (TN) Sheriff's Department and Sergeant Jerry A. Mundy of the Mount Juliet (TN) Police Department, who died in the same incident; Vermont State Police Sergeant Michael W. Johnson; and Deputy Charles T. Sease of the Flagler County (FL) Sheriff's Office.

On September 6, 2005, Lino Lakes (MN) Police Officer Shawn Silvera was killed deploying a spike strip. Less than a week later Arkansas State Police Corporal Mark Carthron was removing a spike strip from the roadway when he was struck by another trooper who was in pursuit of the suspect vehicle.

Tulsa Police Captain Travis Yates, an advocate of tire deflation devices, but also a realist, helps to put the issue in proper perspective when he says, "While we should always strive to make the jobs of our officers safer, we will never be able to completely eliminate the dangers involved in our work."

About the Author
Craig W. Floyd is chairman of the National law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Visit www.nleomf.org for more information about law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

About The NLEOMF
The NLEOMF is a nonprofit organization established in 1984 to generate increased public support for the law enforcement profession by permanently recording and appropriately commemorating the service and sacrifice of law enforcement officers; and to provide information that will help promote law enforcement safety. The NLEOMF operates and maintains the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC, which contains nearly 18,000 names; is an organizer of the annual National Police Week tribute each May; and serves as a clearinghouse of information about law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. The NLEOMF is leading the building of the first-ever National Law Enforcement Museum, scheduled to open adjacent to the Memorial in 2011. For more information, visit www.nleomf.org.

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