Motor Vehicle Pursuit:
Your Department's Risk
Steven D. Ashley, M.S., M.L.S.,
When a law enforcement administrator makes a list of the things he or she is most concerned about, motor vehicle
pursuit is always near the top. The
potential for officer injuries, lawsuits, damaged equipment, and negative
public relations, can be very intimidating, particularly when pursuit
management strategies are limited.
One of the
most frequently overlooked issues in the pursuit debate is the need for
alternative pursuit management techniques. All too often, departments view
pursuit as an “either/or” proposition.
Departments frequently characterize pursuit-related decisions in
terms of simple “yes or no”, “right or wrong” alternatives.
In reality, a pursuit is a dynamic, fluid situation that is
constantly evolving. It
represents a series of decisions, some right, others wrong, but most
manifesting varying degrees of correctness, depending upon the evolving
circumstances of the moment.
In fact, the
standard by which a pursuit will be evaluated is not one of “right or
wrong”, but of applicable federal and state law, augmented by department
policy. Should a seizure occur
during the course of a pursuit, as is frequently the case, the standard is
usually one of objective reasonableness of an officer’s actions, based
upon his or her perceptions at the moment each action is taken.
This standard is analogous to the use of force standard set forth by
the United States Supreme Court in Tennessee
v. Garner, and Graham v. Connor.
Methods: The Extremes
are essentially three strategies utilized by departments for managing
the risks of pursuit:
very limited restrictions, or none at all;
general restrictions on pursuit termination techniques,
such as roadblocks or ramming;
very tight restrictions on pursuit in general, limiting
both type and duration of pursuit, as well as the techniques to be
these restrictions are stated in policy, although not always.
In essence, these three alternatives provide officers with
little assistance in the management of
either extreme, they are either forbidden to pursue at all, or are
allowed to pursue to whatever degree they decide is appropriate, but
without being trained or equipped with tools and tactics for managing
the outcome. In between is a middle ground where, while there are some
restrictions on forcible termination techniques, there is little
training and direction on how and when to apply those tactics.
fact, the application of these controls is often inadequately
supported with technology, policy, training and supervision.
When this occurs, departments greatly increase the very risk
they are attempting to control.
technology is not always the answer, there are alternative pursuit
management tools that departments should consider.
Controlled deflation devices (i.e. spike strips, etc.) are being
adopted by many agencies across the country.
Although these tools are not yet in widespread use in Michigan, they
are becoming increasingly common in some areas.
several manufacturers producing controlled deflation devices for law
enforcement. Although there
are differences in design, the underlying principle is essentially the
same. The device is deployed across the path of a fleeing vehicle.
When the vehicle rolls over the device, hollow “spikes”
penetrate the tire and remain in place, creating several rapid, yet
controlled leaks. The spikes
are hollow to allow for the controlled deflation of the tire (solid spikes
are likely to cause a blowout, or other mishap).
practical standpoint, three safety issues arise from the use of controlled
deflation devices. First, they
should be deployed in a location
where, should a vehicle go out of control,
minimal collateral damage can occur (e.g. not near playgrounds, or close to
environmental features such as cliffs, bridges, or tight roadway curves).
such devices should not be utilized to stop motorcycle or bicycle pursuits,
unless deadly force would otherwise be justified due to the violently
felonious nature of the fleeing suspect’s actions.
Very slow pursuits with such vehicles may provide an opportunity for
such deployment, but care should be taken due to the unstable nature of
officers should exercise personal caution when deploying controlled
deflation devices. Manufacturer’s
safety guidelines should be closely followed.
Some devices require the wearing of protective gloves or eyewear
during deployment. Additionally,
care must be taken to avoid wrapping deployment cables or cords around the
hand of the deploying officer. And
finally, as with all stationary roadblocks, officers must be careful to
stand well clear of the deployment zone as the fleeing violator approaches
and passes through the roadblock.
been very few reported injuries or crashes in controlled deflation
incidents, and existing caselaw arising from such incidents is virtually
non-existent. While there is
at least a possibility of an unfortunate outcome, in light of the
alternative – continued pursuit, possibly at high speed – the low
frequency of problems arising from the use of controlled deflation devices
seems an acceptable risk.
Techniques for Pursuit Management
When considering methods for the
management of pursuits, many departments utilize either blocking or contact
techniques. Generally, these
techniques are used in attempting forcible termination of a pursuit.
In that regard, they usually constitute a seizure under the fourth
amendment to the United States Constitution, and therefore will be
evaluated according to a standard of “objective reasonableness”.
techniques are tactics such as “boxing in”, and both moving and
stationary roadblocks. Typically,
stationary roadblocks utilize vehicles parked across the roadway, although
sometimes the aforementioned controlled deflation devices are used..
While vehicles can be used, controlled deflation devices are
preferable, due to the reduced risk of a crash between the fleeing vehicle
and the blocking mechanism.
contact between vehicles is another method sometimes utilized to bring a
pursuit to a conclusion. Historically,
this meant “ramming”, and was usually accomplished by crossing your
fingers and attempting to strike the fleeing vehicle in such a way that the
contact caused the violator to loose control, while allowing the officer to
maintain control of his or her vehicle.
Aside from the obvious unpredictability of intentional contact at
any significant speed, differences in vehicle size and weight made this
technique difficult to do safely and effectively.
In the past,
intentional contact has frequently been characterized as deadly force. Two recent federal appellate cases have acted to mitigate
this view. In the first, the
court stated that, while a fatality may result from an intentional
collision between two automobiles, it is far from the norm, and therefore
deadly force should not be presumed to be the level of force applied in
In the second, another court recognized this principle, but added
that collisions between automobiles and motorcycles frequently lead to a
fatal outcome, and therefore a presumption that deadly force was used in
auto/motorcycle intentional collisions is more appropriate.
past few years, controlled contact techniques have begun to grow in
popularity. Such tactics as
the Precision Immobilization Technique (PIT Maneuver) are now being taught,
and used effectively, in various parts of the country.
Originally developed by the Fairfax County, Virginia, Police
Department, the PIT maneuver is taught as a low speed (less than 35 mph),
precision technique, requiring a clear location and careful timing.
southern California have made widespread use of the PIT maneuver, and have
found it to be both relatively safe, and generally effective in
application. It does, however,
require thorough training and careful management of the pursuit environment
to assure the safest possible outcome.
which of these pursuit management techniques your agency authorizes for
use, there are several concerns that must be addressed.
In short, never authorize the use of any tactic or technique (or
tool or weapon, for that matter) that you have not supported with training,
policy and supervision. Even
though most agencies make efforts to comply with this requirement, it is
still fairly common for such things as roadblocks and “ramming” to be
addressed in policy, with conditions being set for when such tactics may be
used, but without provision being made for officers to be trained in their
use. Because tactics such as these usually will constitute a
forcible seizure and therefore a potential constitutional civil rights
violation if done unreasonably, failure to train in their use may
constitute “deliberate indifference”.
Pursuit Management Framework
Departments that are developing a pursuit management strategy
should consider the adoption of the Pursuit Management Continuum©
(PMC), to be used as a policy development and training tool.
Use of the PMC is similar to the use of a traditional
Use-of-Force continuum, in that the interaction of varying levels of
resistance and control are set forth in a graphical representation
that makes the relationships simpler to understand.
Various types of pursuits (resistance) and common pursuit
tactics (control) are illustrated, with reasonable relationships
being drawn between the two.
Tactics and techniques like those described in this article
can be placed on the PMC in such a way as to facilitate understanding
of the underlying causal factors necessary to reasonably justify
different officer actions. Of
course, in order to defend the use of each of the tactics and
techniques placed on the Continuum, policy, training and supervision
must be put into place. When
a department is unable or unwilling to support a technique with these
three critical management elements, that technique should not be
included on the Continuum.
Once suitable technology is acquired, and appropriate policy,
training and supervision are in place, the management process must
remain “in gear”. A
suitable Pursuit Report Form should be adopted, and data should be
collected on all pursuit incidents, whether or not apprehension or an
Data so collected should be carefully analyzed, in order to
identify ways to improve your department’s pursuit management
program. Look for ways
to enhance the process through changes in policy, further development
of training programs, and increased emphasis on supervision and
monitoring of pursuits. Consider
the development of an “Incident Analysis Team”, comprised of
trained department members, supervisors and trainers.
Information developed through this analysis process should be
used for administrative review of your program, rather than for
disciplinary purposes. To
quote two well-known experts on the subject, “Even with a 100%
positive outcome it is still necessary to carefully review [such
incidents] to take maximum advantage of the ILV (Incident Learning
A common concern of law enforcement officials is that
collecting data on high-risk activity makes things easier for the
plaintiff’s bar. This should not be a concern.
The simple fact is that such information is usually available
to plaintiffs anyway, through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
requests, and having it all in one place to begin with just makes the
paperwork less bothersome for the department.
Additionally, by collecting and analyzing data on each
incident, and on pursuits in general, your department can more
readily defend itself against future claims of reckless pursuit, or
of ineffective management and supervision.
Officers can safely and effectively pursue suspects, given the
necessary tools and administrative support.
At a minimum, departments should identify those techniques in
policy that are authorized, develop and present training programs in
application of the approved techniques, and then supervise the
officers’ utilization of the various techniques on the street.
On-going monitoring of the pursuit management initiative by
both supervisors and managers, should lead to further development and
fine tuning of the department’s pursuit-related motor vehicle risk
Tennessee v. Garner, 105 S.Ct. 1694 (1985)
Graham v. Connor, 109 S.Ct. 1865 (1989), as interpreted by
Chew v. Gates, 27 F.3d 1432
(9 CA, 1994)
Brower v. County of Inyo, et al, 109 S.Ct. 1378 (1989)
Adams v. St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Dept., 998 F.2d.923 (11
CA, 1993), (Edmondson, J., dissenting), rev’d, 998 F.2d 923 (11CA, 1993)(en banc)
Donovan v. City of Milwaukee, 17 F.3d 944 (7 CA, 1994)
City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, et al, 109 S.Ct. 1197 (1989)
 One Answer to Pursuits:
Controlled Deflation Devices, Michael A. Brave and
Jeffrey R. Edblad, Law Enforcement Legal Defense Manual,
Fall, 1996, Brief #96-3, pgs. 3-6.
implement a written policy. Train
officers as to the policy and its application on the street.
Train at least
annually in the policy and decision-making aspects of pursuit (and
other types of motor vehicle) operations.
Driving is a
motor skill. Train
frequently (at least every two or three years, more often if
possible) in all approved tactics and techniques.
document all training.
personnel should closely monitor all pursuits.
Collect data on
all pursuits, whether successful or not.
Debrief and analyze all pursuit related incidents.