The dangers of police pursuits have been well documented, yet every year the number of officers killed in vehicle crashes continues to rise.
In 2003, more U.S. police officers were killed in police pursuits than in any year in history. The recent death of Florida Highway Patrol Trooper George "Andy" Brown III – and two officers killed in separate crashes over the weekend -- once again reminds law enforcement of the inherent dangers of police pursuits.
Once an officer engages in a vehicle pursuit and determines that they are meeting department policy and their legal obligations by continuing, there are several techniques that can be used to ensure safety and success.
The tendency in a vehicle pursuit is to follow the suspect at close proximity. This is a dangerous practice but enhanced due to the stress of the situation. The recommended following distance is 4-6 seconds. This is much higher than normal driving and a necessity. This gives the officer ample time to react in case the suspect attempts to use his car as a weapon or bait the officer into a collision. This also helps with tunnel vision. Tunnel Vision is bound to happen while engaged in a pursuit but the additional distance will assist the officer in recognizing more of their surroundings. To apply the correct following distance, the officer should note an object the suspect just passed and count the number of seconds it takes for them to pass the object. Distance can be adjusted based on the findings. This practice should be done throughout a pursuit to ensure a proper following distance.
In recent years there has been an influx of emphasis on utilizing tactical maneuvers to end police pursuits. With the proper training and situation, tactical vehicle interventions can be very effective. Although these maneuvers can end a police pursuit, they can also bring an additional element of danger if not conducted properly, or if the suspect anticipates the action and brakes or maneuvers widely.
The situation and environment must be perfect. The presence of curbs, trees or fixed structures can lead to severe injury or death. Officers must ensure that their training is current and sufficient to justify a potentially dangerous precision maneuver.
To conduct a Tactical Vehicle Intervention, the officer must drive within a close proximity of the suspect. This violates the 4-6 second following distance rule, thus making the use of an intervention potentially dangerous. By getting close to the suspect, it gives them the opportunity to assault or collide with the officer. The suspect may also expect the vehicle maneuver, which places the officer at a disadvantage. Unfortunately, the television coverage on these tactical maneuvers can educate criminals as well as the public. The use of offensive maneuvers to end police pursuits are necessary in certain situations. With the proper training and situation, they are an invaluable tool in combating the dangers of pursuits.
The use of lights and siren during a pursuit could give an officer a false sense of security. An officer must assume that citizens do not see or hear them. At speeds over 50 mph, a citizen will not hear the siren until the officer has past them. The phenomenon of over-driving a siren will occur in most pursuits.
Daylight hours provide another problem. Emergency Lights are not seen as well during the day. The officer should be aware of these issues and take extreme precautions when engaged in a pursuit around the public.
The participation in a police pursuit is highly dangerous. The influence of increased adrenaline and the potential for tunnel vision may affect emotions and decision making. The ability to make rational decisions will be affected by emotions. The officer must realize this and take extra precautions to protect themselves while involved in a vehicle pursuit. Some officers report that concentrating on deep breaths versus rapids breaths can assist them in controlling their emotions.
The attitude an officer possesses has more to do with the safety of a pursuit than driving ability. The right attitude equals the correct decisions. The correct decisions equal success.
Apprehension is not the primary goal in a police vehicle pursuit. The safety of the officer and public are the most important aspects. This may relate to terminating a pursuit or slowing down to a manageable speed. One thing is certain; the risks are high for all involved. By utilizing defensive techniques, controlling emotions, and having the right attitude, the officer can conduct this police function in the safest possible manner.