Law enforcement activity as entertainment started when COPS first aired in the early 1990s. Now we have Live PD, Police Women of Dallas, PD Cam… Every time there is a law enforcement pursuit it seems if there is a news helicopter in the area, it is not only filming the pursuit for the news, they are doing live broadcasts to TV as well as the web.
The public now sees pursuits as entertainment rather than bringing a suspect to justice. The public views it as a game of cat and mouse. All the while, no one watches the pursuit thinking about the danger posed to the public as well as all of those involved. No one stops to think about why is the suspect being chased in the first place.
Law enforcement has taken the stance of not using the name of active shooters as much as possible, to not give them the attention they desire.
Why can we not do the same for pursuits? Why air them? Why allow people to experience “the thrill” of them? All we are doing is promoting a deadly activity.
During this “entertainment”, I am willing to bet there is zero talk of the risks to the public or to anyone involved.
Let’s stop glorifying pursuits.
According to Las Vegas Now (see image above), the attraction allows people to participate in a simulated vehicle pursuit just a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip. Image courtesy of Police Chase Las Vegas. PursuitSAFETY expresses its condemnation of this type of entertainment that encourages people to commit a crime that kills and injures innocent bystanders and police officers every day.
by Ellen Deitz Tucker Every week we see the stories—reports of innocent bystanders killed as a result of law enforcement pursuits. These stories recall our own pain when loved ones were killed in this way; yet we read them to their end. Someone must bear witness.
We also try to keep track of trends in pursuit operations—and the frequency of pursuit-related deaths, still holding steady at about one per day. In the absence of federally mandated reporting of pursuit-related fatalities, we rely on news reports to track this. We know that the pursuit-related circumstances of some traffic deaths are never reported. So we appreciate reporters who make the connection clear.Still, most stories leave other facts fuzzy, hindering our ability—and that of family members of those killed—to assess what happened. We get it; reporters work under deadline pressure. Reporters must also respect their sources, so they politely accept the information law enforcement offers. And a reporter who pushes too hard, or wrinkles the brow while searching for a penetrating angle, may appear to law enforcement as an adversary, rather than a representative of the fourth estate just doing their job. We suggest that reporters ask a few key questions every time a pursuit-related death or injury occurs. Answers to the questions below will reveal a great deal about the way a particular agency responded to a too frequent event—the driver who refused to stop for police:
1. What Was the Reason for the Pursuit?
This question is critical. What crime was the fleeing driver suspected of committing?
The reporter need not spell out his reason for asking this question, but the answer he gets will allow readers to consider a problem central to all pursuits: Did the suspected crime threaten public safety to such a degree that a pursuit—itself a threat to public safety—was justified? At times, both law enforcement and the public seem to apply a retroactive reason for pursuing. The driver drove recklessly and caused a crash; isn’t this proof that the driver threatened public safety? Yet in fact, many fleeing drivers only become reckless because they are pursued. Consider the most common crime suspected of fleeing drivers: possession of a stolen vehicle. A person who hot-wired a car he found unlocked did not use violence to make the theft. He hopes to drive away unobserved, retaining his prize. If pursued, he counts on his driving skills to elude police, but will not worry about crashing a vehicle he did not pay for. He does not expect to collide with another car, killing its occupants. He is reckless and self-deluded, but he is not a violent threat to the public before he flees. Others who flee often include drivers suspected of minor traffic violations. If they have a history of such violations, they may fear that the next citation will cost them their drivers’ license or result in a steep fine they cannot pay. If they are teens who took the parents’ car keys without permission—a group included in those suspected of car theft—they fear punishment at home. Sometimes the driver who flees is out of prison on probation. Being stopped by police, he fears, will send him back to lock-up. Fleeing drivers act on impulse, hoping to avoid an encounter with law enforcement that they think will ruin or complicate their futures. They exhibit terrible judgment; but prior to their flight they do not threaten others. The reporter need not ask the police spokesman to weigh the suspected crime against the risks inherent in pursuit. If the reporter gets an explanation of the reason for the pursuit, the reader can weigh the risk taken.
2. How Much Time Elapsed During the Pursuit?
Most stories report the approximate time of the collision. Many stories also report the approximate time a call requiring police response came in, or the time that a patrol officer observed suspicious behavior. But to really understand what happened, a reporter needs to ask:At what exact time did the pursuit begin? At what exact time did the collision occur? Most pursuit-related crashesoccur in the first two minutes. If a supervisor judges the pursuit too risky, he should call it off in a matter of seconds.
3. What was the Route of the Pursuit?
and: How Many Miles Did it Cover?
Readers who are told the distance the pursuit covered and the time that elapsed during the pursuit can then calculate the average speeds of the fleeing and pursuing vehicles.Asking this question also allows readers to assess other hazards beside high speed.
What were the cross streets during the pursuit?
Where were the stop signs and stoplights?
Did the route cross major intersections?
Did it traverse residential or schools zones, where children might be walking or playing?
How heavy was the traffic likely to have been on the roads traveled? The three numbered questions above cover the basic facts. If reporters covering pursuit deaths always sought answers to these questions, the public could much more easily assess whether particular operations seem justified. They might also begin to understand the hazards pursuits pose, and they could start to ponder the problems law enforcement faces when setting policy for this operation:Which is more important—catching suspects, or following procedures that protect public safety?Or, must such a choice necessarily be made? Are there safer ways to track and apprehend suspects, by taking action either before they begin to drive or after they come to a stop?A reporter willing to probe more deeply—perhaps in follow-up coverage of the collision—might ask about other issues:
Whether the Pursuit was Conducted in Accordance with Standard Law Enforcement Procedures
Was the pursuing officer communicating with a supervisor during the pursuit?Was more than one patrol car involved?Did a supervisor authorize the pursuit and the involvement of officers who joined the pursuit after it began?
What is the department’s policy concerning pursuits?Does policy specify the suspected crimes that justify the risk of pursuit?Does it require officers to terminate pursuit in certain situations—when speeds become too high, when traffic-controlled intersections are ahead, when traffic is heavy, when the fleeing driver turns into an area with likely pedestrian traffic, etc.?Must officers undergo training before engaging in pursuits? What training had the officers involved in this event been given?
The Expected Outcome
Very few drivers desperate enough to flee law enforcement will suddenly reconsider their action and pull over. So, what did the pursuing officer think he could do to cause the driver to stop? Had the department rehearsed procedures that are sometimes effective in stopping fleeing drivers? Some procedures used, such as placing tire deflation devices ahead of the speeding car, involve serious risk to officers. Departments deploying such tools should require officers to train at regular intervals in their use. Training should not only cover safe methods to place or throw the devices; it should teach officers in pursuing vehicles to avoid hitting the officer who throws it. Other methods, such as the PIT (pursuit intervention tactic) maneuver, involve risks to non-involved drivers. Officers should be carefully trained in when and how to use this tactic.If the department has not trained officers in ways to bring fleeing drivers to a halt, one must logically ask: what terminating event did the supervising officer expect to occur? In most cases, it will be a collision.Ellen Deitz Tucker is a writer and editor for an educational nonprofit. She has also written opinion pieces on law enforcement pursuits, after becoming aware of the problem they pose when her sister, Donna Deitz, was killed as an innocent bystander of a pursuit in Belmont, NC, in 2012. The opinions expressed here represent her own views, not those of her employer.
On Average, Errant Police Response Calls and Pursuits Take the Lives of At Least Three Innocent Civilians Every Week.
[National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, FBI.]
As a certified law enforcement instructor, I am always reviewing social media, videos, and other media trying to get information to use in training. Unfortunately, I see many posts by seasoned officers that are along the lines of “man, we can not be the police anymore.”
Officers like to drive fast. Many like the adrenaline and the excitement. We would be telling a lie if we said we did not like the rush. However, that rush causes the brain to cease cognitive thought and go into what I like to call “Lizard Brain.” This is when the brain relies on muscle memory and training. Due to the adrenaline and increased heart rate, you lose fine motor skills and your decision-making ability is significantly diminished. This is the entire thought process behind needing a trained supervisor not involved in the pursuit or a police response call as the person deciding to continue or not.
Police response calls involve the need for speed. Combine speeding with the diminished decision-making skills and the chances of an unfortunate conclusion to the response call is exceptionally high.
You see, I happen to know an officer whose son was an Army MP. He was killed when his partner decided to speed and essentially joy ride on a remote area of the base they were on at the time. The MP driving went too fast around a corner and rolled the car. The car caught fire, and my friend’s son burned up. Speed and bad decision making by the officer in charge of the vehicle killed my friend’s son. While not a pursuit, the effect of the speed, adrenaline (from the speed and excitement) and decision making was the same. Every time I see him, I can see the hurt in his eyes.
Every “hot” call has the same effect as a pursuit. The rush of adrenaline and excitement has the same result of lizard brain kicking in. This is the reason we teach combat breathing and stress management, to lower your heart rate to help you retain fine motor skills and cognitive thought.
I attended Below 100 training a year ago. During this training, I met Kim Schlau. She was the mother of three beautiful girls. The oldest, Jessica Uhl, was driving her middle sister, Kelli Uhl, home from an outing when Matt Mitchell, an Illinois State Trooper was on duty. Trooper Mitchell got dispatched to a wreck on the interstate while talking to his significant other about Thanksgiving shopping.
As noted, bad decisions come when the heart rate increases and the adrenaline dump begins. Trooper Mitchell keeps his significant other on the phone, driving over 100 MPH and is typing on his in-car computer all at the same time, trying to find the location of the wreck. Due to being distracted by the computer and the phone, he never hears that other emergency responders are already at the scene. Trooper Mitchell lost control of his cruiser, crossed the median and struck the car driven by Kim’s oldest daughter at over 100 MPH. The impact killed the sisters instantly. It took hours to identify them and to notify Kim about her daughters.
The same agency responsible for the deaths of her daughters had to inform Kim of their deaths. As Kim told this story in class, I could not help but break down when Kim told this story in class. I too had driven over 100 MPH going to a call (mine involved a gun pointed at a fellow deputy). It could have been me telling a family I killed their loved one.
Is that police response call or pursuit worth that risk?
I hope these stories will make you think twice about your decisions, but remember, there are thousands of similar stories. They impact the families of officers and law-abiding citizens.
While these two incidents were not pursuits, the elements of adrenaline, elevated heart rate, the increased risk of bad decision making were all present, the same as a during a pursuit. Unless there is an imminent threat to you, other officers, or the public, think long and hard about the risk vs. the reward.
Too many times we see officers pursuing a vehicle and that pursuit leading to wrecked vehicles (including patrol vehicles), injuries (including officers), and even deaths.
So when should you pursue? Below, I will walk you through a decision-making ladder to explain the decision-making process.
The very first question we must ask: If we pursue, are we within agency policy and state law. Violating either one of these is asking for discipline and an expensive civil lawsuit.
Second, is this person likely to seriously injure or kill someone if not immediately stopped? If the person just committed a forcible felony, the case can be made that there is a high probability that this is the case. But that does not mean we can go all out and do whatever it takes to apprehend the felon.
Third, what are the road and lighting conditions? If it has just rained or it is in the middle of winter, the chances are very high of a crash. If it is 2 PM and schools are letting out with crowded school zones in the vicinity of the pursuit, think long and hard about continuing the pursuit. If it is at night, it is easy to overdrive your headlights at high speed. It is also harder to judge distance at night.
Fourth, how much traffic is on the road? If it is 5 PM rush hour traffic, the likelihood of a traffic crash occurring due to the congestion is very high.
Fifth, do you have the person’s identity? Can you make out a face to match it up with a picture of the vehicle registrant? If so, cut the pursuit off and get a warrant. If you know their identity, there is nothing to gain in continuing the pursuit unless the person is an immediate danger to the lives of the public.
Remember, when adrenaline is elevated, heart rate is elevated. As heart rate increases, cognitive brain, activity decreases, resulting in poor decision-making skills. This is where we depend on training. Use combat breathing to lower your heart rate. Make a good decision; lives depend on it.
After a number of fatal police chases in New Zealand resulting in the loss of one or more innocent victims, the world is starting to question whether or not police need to change their pursuit policies?
Retired Police Captain, Tom Gleason of Tallahassee, Florida, helps us answer this question during a New Zealand podcast. Gleason is a member of PursuitSAFETY’s Advisory Board and has a passion for law enforcement training. A trainer for major academies in Florida, Gleason teaches officer safety in such areas as firearms, patrol procedures, and vehicular pursuit policies.
The podcast discusses the police chase that took place in New Zealand, taking another innocent victim’s life, Carmen Yanko. She was driving to the market when a car fleeing police crossed the center line at 5.40 am and crashed head-on into her vehicle on State Highway 6 at Hope.
Tom Gleason had this to say:
“…we first started seeing changes in pursuits probably about 20 years ago with certain restrictions as far as speeding and minor offenses…They came about after the public’s outcry about the number of innocent people that were losing their lives in pursuits such as speeding vehicles. So from that, we have seen drastic reductions in the number of injuries, the number of accidents, the number of fatalities resulting from pursuits…”
There were about 500 pursuits last year, up 60% from 2014, 1 in 5 being results in a wreck; totaling 700 car wrecks last year.
Gleason states that when deciding to pursue a vehicle, police need to ask these questions:
Do we have a tag number?
Can we follow up later on with these tag numbers?
Do we have cameras on that will identify this person?
Are there other ways we can identify this person later on?
If so then there is no reason to chase.
“It’s called the 360 approach,” says Gleason “…weighing out the facts versus the risks for the general public by chasing” because if we don’t weigh out these factors we increase the risk factor for everyone around. We do not always make clear decisions when our adrenaline starts increasing, that’s why we need to have policies that are somewhat restrictive as well as police pursuit review boards and advisory boards.
We watch movies and video games that glorify the ultimate police chase. Everyone is on the edge of their seats hoping the protagonists ditches the police, dodges the busy streets and comes out victorious! It’s simple, in Hollywood movies, video games, simulations, etc. you can always walk away. In real life, police chases often end in violent crashes that kill, paralyze, or disfigure those who flee and innocent victims nearby. You can’t turn off the TV, pause the game, or walk away. This is real life.That is why it is essential to remind young adults or teenagers getting ready to drive about the importance of taking being pulled over by police seriously. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory argues that people learn and develop ideas from observations, modeling, and imitation. This said, younger generations are surrounded by new film technology that includes awesome CGI, graphics, animations and anything else that can transform an unfortunate chase scene into something “hard-core” and “EPIC.” This can be misleading especially to young adults starting to drive. These films are telling the story that police chases are cool and even more so if you get away and outrun the cops!
“Fast and the Furious,” “Need for Speed,” and “Dukes of Hazard” are only a few of the 1,000-plus films that contribute to glorifying police chases. Seeing these films over and over can have the effect of making someone feel invincible on the road. Especially after seeing a leading character hit a police car, roll their vehicle multiple times, land in a lake and walk away without a scratch. This isn’t realistic, and it is imperative we are reminded of that.
Too often the person killed isn’t the person fleeing, but an innocent victim that is usually a brother, sister or a best friend.
If you are not familiar with the term PIT, it stands for Precision Immobilization Technique. The first large law enforcement agency to teach PIT as a technique to halt fleeing vehicles was the Fairfax County (Virginia) Police Department, which modified the program for police use.
The video below shows a PERFECT example of the PIT being used to end a police chase. PursuitSAFETY wants to reduce the number of deaths and injuries by eliminating police pursuits and response call crashes. We are here to work with police officers in identifying when they should stop pursuing a car to avoid deaths of innocent bystanders and police officers themselves. In the case of performing a PIT, however, we encourage the use of this maneuver only if it is done correctly.
Throughout the video, we watch as the fleeing driver enters the wrong side of the road, goes through green lights, and dodges cars. The driver does everything possible to increase the risk of involving an innocent victim. During this pursuit, the police make the right choice to stop the chase by performing the PIT and decreases all possible risks of casualties. Once the vehicle was stopped everything slowed down; no police officers rushed to the driver, but they delegated each response.
We must remember the hazards of pursuits and the multiple lives that are endangered during the chase. Sometimes the PIT is not always the answer or cannot be performed in the safest manner. We encourage officers to continue to think outside the box and use any alternative routes to avoid accidents, especially on crowded roads.
Life can change in an instant. One day, I’m married to a beautiful, healthy man named James “Awesome” Williford, and the next minute, he’s gone, killed instantly by a police chase. What? How does this happen? What exactly happened? Chaos ensues, and I am catapulted into a world of darkness and despair. James is gone forever, and life has changed. Prior to his death, we had been working on starting a family. Now, instead, I find myself at a funeral home, buying my husband a beautiful, silver casket. My sweet James was a musician; he played the bass guitar in a band. He was super-talented and hilariously funny, with the ability to brighten anyone’s day.
It wasn’t until the shock of his death became my reality that I found out how he had been killed. My first thought upon learning of the deadly police pursuit was to change Austin’s pursuit policy—it didn’t seem safe. Why had my husband had to die over a stolen truck? Hadn’t there been a better way to apprehend the suspect? Was property more valuable than life? These questions motivated me to learn more about and promote awareness of this devastatingly common occurrence.
Individual police departments across the country adopt their own pursuit policies, although some police departments don’t have a pursuit policy. In some states, like California, officers are not required by state law to follow their pursuit policies and are protected by immunity shields in the event of an injury or fatality. These practices seem erratic and dangerous.
According to the United States Department of Justice, pursuit policies are categorized into three types: discretionary, restrictive, and discouraging. Discretionary policies are the least restrictive and allow a police officer to make all decisions, including when to initiate a pursuit and when to stop it. A restrictive policy is defined but also allow officers to seek advice from their commanding officers or supervisors on whether to pursue or not. The third type of police pursuit policy is the discouraging policy, which is extremely cautious of any pursuits and only recommends pursuits when there is no other solution, or the situation is so extreme as to endanger the lives of others.
I compared Austin’s policy to Dallas’s and found out that the Dallas policy has more restrictions on pursuits. For instance, in Dallas, law enforcement is not allowed to pursue unless the suspect has committed a violent felony or someone’s life is in danger. In Austin, on the other hand, law enforcement can pursue for nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors; running a red light or stealing a vehicle without an act of violence is sufficient cause to initiate a high-speed police chase.
Pursuits are a dangerous business. These chases endanger the lives of the innocent, on average killing three bystanders every week in the United States. And police are not exempt from the danger; a police officer is killed every six to eight weeks in a vehicle pursuit or response call. We need to reduce the number of people killed as a result of pursuit crashes. Many police departments are restricting their pursuits to violent crimes only and when the offender puts the public in imminent danger. When officers follow these policies, they save lives and make our roads safer. I challenge law enforcement officers to think outside the box, to use alternative methods to apprehend offenders and avoid pursuits through high traffic areas where civilians are present. Many times they do arrest the suspect another way; we just don’t hear about it because the officer did not pursue, a crash did not occur, and no one died.
By Officer David Pienta
I remember the first time I had someone run from me on a traffic stop. I was still a rookie. I was partnered up with a full-time deputy, waiting for my FTO training to begin formally. It was a clear night. My partner was driving.
The department’s chase policy was not to chase unless the driver had or was committing a forcible felony.
We did what we would always do, use our overhead lights to indicate a stop. However, this stretch of road was not conducive to traffic stops, as there were limited spots a vehicle could pull over. This time, rather than pull onto a side street, the car driven by the suspect pulled perpendicular across the side road. This blocked the side street and made us stop nearly in the middle of the 2-lane highway.
The stop was called out on the radio per protocol. As my partner walked up to the driver side of the car, he informed he was going to ask the driver to reposition his car to get us off the road, and he wanted me to move our squad car behind the suspect’s car. I was making my way behind our car when the suspect took off from the stop.
I felt like I was running in slow motion trying to get back to my passenger door and get in the car. I got in, and my partner hit the gas. Before I knew it, we were nearing speeds of 100 MPH trying to catch up to the suspect, lights on. Being a rookie, with my adrenaline not as high as my partner’s, I knew we were not allowed to chase by policy. However, my partner had taken the radio mic from me to prevent me from calling it out.
I used my handheld mic and called out the pursuit, the description, direction of travel and speed. The shift supervisor called off the pursuit, much to the displeasure of my partner. He pulled over, beat the steering wheel while cussing up a storm. He stopped the car, kicked the tires a few times. My partner then told me he needed me to drive because he was too upset that the car and driver got away.
We must remember this job is not personal. We must take our emotions out of our job. It was not my partner or me as a person that caused this guy to flee; it was the uniform and the patrol car. It could have been anyone in uniform driving it, and the results would have been the same. We can not let our emotions dictate our response.
We must remain in control to make sound and safe decisions that will result in us going home the same way we came to work. Find ways to take the stress out of your life through hobbies or exercise. We cannot win every incident we face. Just remember, as a wise instructor once taught me, bad money keeps turning back up. I promise you this was not the first time this suspect fled, and it will not be his last. The suspect will eventually get caught. Make sure you stay in both the policy and the law. But also take the time to make sure the risk is worth the reward.
It is so important to me that I provide the best possible care for my patients, to improve their overall health with the goal of restoring them to their pre-acute illness condition. My job is demanding, but restoring patients to their baseline health provides me with great pleasure and fulfillment. I take my inspiration from my late husband, James Williford. I feel blessed to help others, and I believe that is why I was given the gift of my husband. James was an amazingly helpful, caring, and compassionate person.
James and I met at a local trauma hospital, where he dedicated 15 years of service. He was known as a man who got things done, who established meaningful rapports with patients as a devoted healthcare servant. He taught me through his selfless actions to help others without expecting anything in return.
On June 15, 2012, a driver fleeing the police struck James’s car as he was on his way to deposit a contribution to a healthcare fund for a former co-worker.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, I searched for meaning in my changed life and for an understanding of how my husband—a law-abiding citizen—could be killed on his way to the bank. In my search, I discovered PursuitSAFETY and learned that pursuits were an enormous problem and far too common in our country.
Prior to the crash, I would watch the Fast and the Furious movies, enjoying the glamorization of pursuits in film and on television, not realizing the horror of the reality. Over the past five years, I have become a different person, one who realizes the grave dangers of pursuits. I have learned that they are shockingly hazardous, killing hundreds of innocent victims.
My husband was killed because a man stole a truck from the local mall and then was chased at speeds of up to 100 mph by law enforcement. Many questions filled my mind, the most important being: Was there a better way to apprehend the suspect, one which didn’t involve chasing him through a high-traffic area with numerous pedestrians crossing the streets?
It is because of James that I have studied police pursuits and educated myself on the dangers that they involve, learning that, too frequently, police officers and innocent victims are killed in these pursuits. This is why I am here today, talking to you: I don’t want your loved ones to be killed. Our aim at PursuitSAFETY is to decrease the number of innocent victims killed in police pursuits, by bringing awareness and education to law enforcement and to the general public. Through a cultural shift toward a safety paradigm, we can keep citizens safer and protect officers, too.
(Esther Seoanes serves as PursuitSAFETY’s executive director. Her post about “Pursuit Policy Types: Restrictive, Discretionary, or Discouraging” will next Thursday, January 18th.)