Police officers experience several firsts that make them feel like they’ve been through the crucible and have officially joined “the club.”
One of those includes their first vehicle pursuit.
First Vehicle Pursuit
After stopping many vehicles during the FTO phase, and then being released from training, the newer officer may or may not have the first pursuit under their belt when they become a solo officer.
However, whenever the first pursuit occurs, it is usually unexpected. The officer “lights up” an offender, and expects the vehicle to yield; but it doesn’t.
Suddenly the chase is on. The first time this occurs, the officer’s eyes dilate to the size of saucers. While future experience helps calm the voice, the officer’s vocal chords during the initial pursuit generally sounds like a tenor or soprano (high-pitched) in a choir.
Calling the Pursuit
On occasion the male voice might even sound like puberty has interfered with the manly radio-transmission. Yet seasoned veterans can “call a pursuit” like a golf broadcaster calmly relays a putt occurring on the 18th hole. But not so much for the rookie.
Engaging in a police pursuit never gets old. Although standards and justifications have been dramatically altered over the years, the thrill of victory is sought by cops who desire to catch the “bad-guy” trying to elude capture.
Things Have Changed
When I began police work, cops were not required to consider all the variables that are mandated today. Yet the contemporary police officer needs to consider everything when engaging in a vehicle pursuit.
A few of the variables include the initial want, traffic and weather conditions, anticipated hazards, likelihood of collateral damage, justification of speeds and danger against the known violation(s), risk to the public if the suspect is not captured, etc. In other words, what is the risk-reward, and how does it connect to public safety? These decisions have become increasingly difficult in law enforcement since opinions are subjective.
Nevertheless, officers should be intimately familiar with their pursuit policy. They will be peppered with questions from it should their vehicle pursuit cause injury to another.
There are attorney’s who make a living filing lawsuits against police agencies as a result of their vehicle pursuits. If a collision occurs as a result of the chase, whether the police unit is involved in the crash or not, civil actions are filed fast and furious.
Chasing Rape Suspect
As a patrol officer, I initiated the pursuit of a green Chevy pick-up truck that matched the description of a rape suspect’s vehicle when a car turned in my path. As a result, I had a split-second to brace for impact or veer into oncoming traffic. I chose impact.
Consequently, the “white knuckles” wrapped around my steering wheel helped re-shape it into a “horseshoe” by the time my police unit came to rest. As a result, the Porsche 914, occupied by two young girls party-hopping that turned in my path, was upended. It rolled over while the passenger was ejected.
Both vehicles suffered major damage.
The passenger was later described by her attorney as a “future runway model.” However, her career ended before it began. Although she survived the collision, the injuries to her face left scars that forced her to select another vocation.
While I was not hurt that bad, the other driver was seriously injured. Fortunately, she fully recovered a short time later.
Driver Pled Guilty to Traffic Infraction
The traffic report and subsequent reconstruction was conducted by our neighboring police agency, Huntington Beach Police Department. They placed the driver of the Porsche at fault for failing to yield. As a result, they issued her a citation. Consequently, she pled guilty in traffic court.
However, that did not stop each young lady from filing a lawsuit.
The civil action continued for several years. The plaintiff’s attorney made me out to be a reckless, rogue cop who “imagined” the vehicle fleeing. He made this assertion since I was not close enough to call out a license plate.
Due to the lawsuit, I felt like I had a huge monkey on my back. So I was happy to finally give a deposition about three years later. Our pursuit policy had been updated in the years since the collision, so I had to be informed regarding the changes, but had to testify to the policy that was in place on the date of the accident.
I felt good when my testimony was complete. But then I received notice from the Southern California Joint Powers Insurance Agency (SCJPIA) several months later. Hence, they decided to settle the 3 million dollar lawsuit for $90,000 to the passenger, and $10,000 to the driver. I was upset, but this was simply money to get them to “go away,” a practice that I saw repeated several times during my career.
Prudence Should Prevail
So the next time you hear the police are in a vehicle pursuit, you need to know they do not engage in this activity without prudence. They want to catch violators, and most communities want violators caught, but it is not done in a vacuum.
As previously mentioned, it is a risk-reward proposition when many variables need to be considered. We trained our officers to broadcast these variables during the pursuit for several reasons. It provides supervisors with information necessary to justify or terminate a pursuit. Moreover, it provides fantastic documentation when the criminal reports are later prepared. Furthermore, these details are imperative if a lawsuit is filed.
Agencies that develop a “no pursuit policy” simply reinforce crooks to run. They network as well as anyone, and word quickly spreads on the street that “cops won’t chase you.” Sure, you can reduce your liability, but at what cost? It is secured at the expense of insecurity in the community.
Final Vehicle Pursuit
The final chase I was involved in before retirement was one that I watched on live TV for about 40 minutes as watch commander.
Our dispatch center received a call regarding a suicidal woman. She was sitting in her Chevy Avalanche in a public parking lot with a garden hose running from her tailpipe into what appeared to be a sealed passenger compartment.
Sadly, people who desire suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning use this technique.
As officers approached the truck took off. Soon after we had an officer and sergeant both involved in the chase.
Live TV Broadcast
About five minutes into the pursuit, a news helicopter appeared overhead and began a live broadcast. Our officers quickly entered Los Angeles County. A few minutes into the chase, dispatchers told me we had responded to the woman’s apartment two weeks prior, when we committed her for a psychological evaluation due to her desire to commit suicide.
As the chase continued, I had the division commander approach and ask why I had not terminated the late afternoon pursuit traveling north into Los Angeles on the busy 405 Freeway.
Conventional wisdom discouraged pursuing such a person in the metropolis of Orange and Los Angeles County during heavy traffic in late afternoon. While we certainly would not want our actions to precipitate further danger to uninvolved commuters, in good conscience I could not abdicate our professional obligation to corral a person so desperate as to attempt suicide on multiple occasions. And the variables appeared favorable.
Therefore, after explaining my reasons, the boss left me alone.
CHP Assumed the Pursuit
We eventually turned the pursuit over to the California Highway Patrol while our guys trailed behind to collect “the body” at the termination point.
After traveling nearly 50 miles deep into Los Angeles County, the woman pulled off the freeway in Culver City, causing two minor collisions in doing so—crashes I witnessed since I stood in our dispatch center monitoring the chase on TV.
Finally, the woman pulled into a short cul-de-sac and was boxed in by the CHP, LAPD, and Culver City officers. She jumped from the vehicle with arms extended as if she were holding a weapon. From the helicopter/television camera angle high above, I could not tell what she was holding, if anything.
Fortunately, no one fired their weapons as they wrestled the unarmed, but combative woman into cuffs. When I talked to our officers shortly after they took her to a local hospital for another psyche evaluation, they said the woman clearly wanted to die.
Fine Line Between Hero and Goat
There’s a fine line between being a hero or a goat in police work. In this case we were heroes. We safely removed a person from public who presented a danger to herself and others. As a result, she obtained professional help (and later faced criminal charges). What she does with another chance at life is up to her.
Yet if a serious collision occurred during the vehicle pursuit, we easily could have been the goat, and I was keenly aware of this during the chase.
Law enforcement officers get blamed for tragic results that are precipitated by the actions of others. It’s a difficult balancing act that few people outside the business understand.
The reason I advocate police pursuits, as safely as possible, is because a majority of the people running from law enforcement are doing so with something to hide. Consequently, they frequently have additional wants that are unknown to the pursuing officers.
Whether the reasons include existing warrants or a new crime, police officers need to have the ability to chase violators of the law once they choose to rabbit.
Naturally they need to do so with prudence, and weigh department policy as they quickly process risk versus reward. But if society expects law enforcement to successfully combat crime, they need to be able to chase bad guys trying to get away.
– Jim McNeff, editor-in-chief, Law Enforcement Today
(Photo courtesy 911Garage)