Reducing the Risks
of Police Pursuit
D. Ashley, M.S., M.L.S., MFCI, ARM
One of the
most difficult law enforcement activities to manage is that of motor
vehicle pursuit. Each year in
the United States, several hundred persons (including some police officers)
are killed, and many others are injured during the course of pursuits.
Pursuit-related accidents, injuries and deaths cause significant
emotional distress for officers, and frequently result in very negative
public relations for departments. Occasionally,
officers are criminally prosecuted following pursuit-related crashes.
Of course, one of the most common negative outcomes of pursuit is
litigation arising from the attendant crashes, injuries and/or deaths.
Clearly, both street officers and police managers need to take steps
to reduce the risks inherent in motor vehicle pursuits.
Vehicle Pursuit – The act of attempting apprehension of a fleeing
vehicle, once the operator has given some indication of his or her intent
not to stop or yield. This
indication can be by increasing speed, bypassing traffic control devices,
or other means.
Behavior – Negative behavior exhibited by an individual after an officer
has indicated intent to control the individual.
The negative behavior can be psychologically or physically
intimidating actions or words, passive refusal to cooperate, or active
resistance (physical)—including the use of weapons.
– That which another person or officer, with similar training, would do
under similar circumstances.
Deprivation – Government actions that are contrary to the rights and
assurances granted by the Constitution of the United States. Deprivations may be either reasonable or unreasonable.
Continuum – A graphic representation of the relationship between levels
of resistance and levels of control.
Sometimes referred to as a “Use of Force Continuum”.
Harm Risk – The degree of risk to the public posed by the actions of a
suspect, usually equated with the initial act that gives rise to a pursuit.
Generally comprised of two elements: the risk inherent in the
initial act or crime committed by the suspect, and the risk faced by the
public should the suspect be allowed to escape and remain at large.
This is different that the degree of risk to the public posed by the
Management Continuum – A specific type of Resistance/Control Continuum,
reflecting the relationship between pursuit causation factors and the
tactics and techniques that may reasonably be used in the apprehension of a
Interaction – Techniques that represent a relatively low risk of
injury to officers and the public. Often
naturally occurring, these techniques do not require any special resources
Intervention – Techniques that require additional personnel, specialized
equipment or training, and/or advanced planning. These tactics represent a greater degree of risk to officers
and the public. Additionally,
these techniques usually constitute “seizures” under the Fourth
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Interdiction – Techniques the represent the greatest degree of risk
to officers. These techniques
approach the use of deadly force, and should only be undertaken when high
levels of control are necessary.
the Risks of Police Pursuit
Consider this: You’re
working midnights. It’s a
couple of hours past the time you usually get your nightly “drunk driver arrest”, but it’s a slow
night, so you’re doing some property checks.
Suddenly, a vehicle coming toward you on a quiet residential street
swerves up over the curb, and knocks down a string of mailboxes, continuing
on. You turn around, and
attempt to stop the swaying, slow moving vehicle.
Instead of pulling over to the right, the driver accelerates, and
turns down a side street. You
notify dispatch, and begin to pursue.
Both your emergency
lights and siren are operating, but the bad guy’s ignoring them. As the vehicle begins to come into the downtown area, early
morning commuters are out and about. The
fleeing vehicle swerves through the traffic, narrowly missing several
vehicles and one pedestrian. Your
heart’s pounding, because you realize that if the vehicle gets into the
congestion of morning traffic, there’s likely to be an accident.
You can see vehicles
stopped at a red light up ahead, but the fleeing vehicle doesn’t seem to
be slowing down. You know that
he doesn’t have room to get through, but that doesn’t seem to matter to
the bad guy. You see an
opportunity to ram the vehicle off the road before he hurts someone, but
you’re not sure if you should take it.
While you’re trying to decide on your next move, a vehicle backs
out of a driveway, directly into the path of the fleeing violator.
There is a loud crash, and both vehicles spin out of control into a
bus-stop full of morning commuters. . . .
Its three hours later
and you’re sitting in the Squad Room, trying to do your report. As your mind runs over the events of the pursuit, you begin
to wonder whether you did the right thing, but you can’t quite see how
you could have responded any differently.
After all, he decided to run, didn’t he?
You were just doing your job.
it be great, you think to yourself, if
there was a more concrete way to figure these things out before things blew
up in your face?
A police officer that engages in the pursuit of a motor vehicle
participates in one of the most hazardous of all police duties.
Pursuit has been vilified by plaintiff’s attorneys and the media
as irresponsible, reckless and unnecessarily dangerous, while at the same
time the practice is defended by police officers as necessary for the
apprehension of many suspects that are unwilling to immediately yield to an
officer’s signal to stop. Police
administrators are caught in the middle, wanting to provide essential
options for their officers, while meeting their obligation to direct and
control a potentially hazardous activity.
The practice of vehicular pursuit is fraught with contradictions,
and is therefore difficult to manage both administratively and
operationally. There are many
aspects of pursuit that must be considered and weighed prior to, during,
and immediately following the actual occurrence of a pursuit.
Each of these aspects harbors the potential for different
interpretations by various elements of society.
For example, it is not uncommon for a police administrator to state
in writing that his department’s policy is to never allow a pursuit to be
hazardous to officers or citizens. Generally
the same policy document calls for the immediate abandonment of any pursuit
that rises to the level of “hazardous”.
However, from a practical standpoint, most pursuits involve various
hazardous elements, such as speed in excess of the posted limit, or
disobedience of traffic control devices.
When this situation occurs, officers are put in the position of
either deciding to never pursue, or of violating the policy statements of
the department. Neither of
these alternatives is satisfactory, and both present different types of
risk for the agency. Failing
to pursue violators could give rise to charges of failure to perform the
mission of the department, while violation of the department’s policies
subjects the officer to disciplinary action—and
the department to potential litigation.
Obviously, it is necessary to develop a different approach to this
and other pursuit issues.
Whenever a law enforcement officer uses force to control resistive
behavior, the legal system will attempt to answer two questions.
Of these, the most fundamental is whether or not there was an
appropriate and reasonable balance
between the degree to which society would be exposed to harm should the
force not be used and the degree of harm to society inherent in the level
of force used.
The system will also attempt to determine if the officer’s use of
force resulted in an unreasonable
constitutional deprivation. In
order to answer this question, a two-tiered test will be applied.
First, the Court will determine if an actual constitutional
deprivation occurred. In other
words, was there a seizure through the mechanism of force?
If so, the Court will examine the seizure to determine if it was
reasonable. This test will go
beyond an examination of the justification for the use of force, and will
also look at the degree of force
that was used.
This balance test, and the evaluation of the degree and
reasonableness of any constitutional deprivation apply to any use of force
by a law enforcement officer. Increasingly,
they are being applied to the conduct of police pursuits, as well. While there is no existing legal definition of pursuit as
force, per se, it is clear that many aspects of a police pursuit verge on
the use of force, and many times the outcome of a pursuit is similar to the
outcome of a physical use of force.
Police officers use force to control resistive behavior, and to gain
control of individuals for the purpose of taking them into custody.
This is frequently what occurs during a pursuit.
A pursuit involves the use of a vehicle in order to capture and
control a resistive individual, and once that individual is controlled,
they are usually taken into custody.
Some tactics utilized to bring a pursuit to a satisfactory
conclusion involve physically blocking
the path of the fleeing vehicle, or even striking
the fleeing vehicle with a police vehicle.
The parallel between these tactics and other types of force is
Many of the tactics commonly employed by police officers during a
pursuit contain some vestige of force.
While this force is present to a greater or lesser degree, depending
on the tactic used, the use of any generally accepted technique or method
of pursuit presents a degree of risk consistent with the amount of force
One of the most significant problems faced by administrators in
their attempts to manage pursuit is the lack of applicable standards and
terminology. The United States
Supreme Court has provided guidelines for the use of force,
and the use of deadly force,
but has not provided clear standards and guidelines for police pursuit.
Some States have case law on the subject of pursuit,
but of course that case law is not binding on other States.
There have been some notable attempts to provide guidelines for
but these attempts have generally focused on the organizational details of
driver training programs, and have not focused on pursuit itself.
If pursuit is addressed at all, it is as one limited aspect of an
overall training program.
In order to provide a systematic approach to the management of
police pursuit, it is necessary to develop and utilize a continuum similar
to those developed for management of the use of force.
Such a Pursuit Management Continuum© can be utilized to
show the relationship between the degree of threat posed to the general
public by vehicles engaging in different types of pursuit, and the tactics
and techniques typically used by police officers to control those pursuits.
Additionally, a pursuit continuum can be utilized to indicate the
escalation and de-escalation of force and control inherent in various
techniques, and the degree of exposure to risk presented by each,
particularly in the areas of officer injury and the potential violation of
Lastly, a pursuit continuum can offer a graphic representation of
levels of resistive behavior (Types of Pursuit) and levels of control. This will aid officers and their departments in classifying
pursuits and pursuit control techniques so as to make them more
Harm and Reasonableness
The most critical element of any pursuit is the need to match the
level of control exerted to the degree of risk posed by the fleeing
individual. In other words,
what is the degree of risk posed to the public by the offense committed by
the individual, and what is the degree of risk posed to the public should
the fleeing individual make good his or her escape, and be free to commit
the offense again?
This public harm risk is
different than the degree of risk posed by the pursuit itself.
Most pursuits involve dangerous activities by their very nature.
While some are less hazardous than others, the very act of engaging
in motor vehicle pursuit involves vehicular operation outside the generally
accepted parameters established for normal vehicle movement and control.
At issue is the reasonableness
of an officer’s actions in pursuing a fleeing violator.
If an officer’s actions are reasonable in light of the public harm
risk that exists, then the officer’s actions should be defensible in a
court of law.
Pursuit Management Continuum
The use of such a Pursuit Management Continuum must be based on
several fundamental concepts:
¨ Officer’s can disengage from pursuit, or de-escalate the
control mechanisms being used, at any time they reasonably believe it to be
¨ Control alternatives presuppose proper utilization of the
tactics, based on reasonable decision-making on the part of officers and
supervisors, not the worst possible result scenario.
While its possible to envision a scenario where lethal harm results
from the application of lower level control methods, it is not the
officer’s intended result. Therefore,
the actual outcome should have nothing to do with the reasonableness or
unreasonableness of an
officer’s actions, given that the technique or
tactic was properly and judiciously applied.
as one should not place firearms low on a use of force continuum, based on
the fact that most shots fired by officers miss, and therefore there is no
should not place stationary roadblocks high on the Pursuit Management
Continuum because a suspect may choose to ram the roadblock, and die in the
¨ Escalation and de-escalation on the Continuum is keyed to the
level of pursuit causation factor at work. Additionally, officers must evaluate the totality of the
circumstances in which they find themselves, when making decisions
regarding the use of any control or force option.
as an officer should not use deadly force against a suspect who has
indicated an intent to surrender, and who does not offer an immediate
threat of serious harm to anyone—an
officer should not implement a high level control option against an
individual who may have started a pursuit by committing a life threatening
act, but is now apparently slowing as if to stop.
¨ Officers should stay at, or below, the control level that
matches the pursuit level (i.e. Level Two pursuit, Level Two Control).
It should be the suspect’s
actions in escalating the pursuit level that prompts the officer to
escalate the control level utilized.
¨ Decisions regarding the use of particular pursuit control
tactics should not be based solely on the likely liability exposure, but
should give significant consideration to the degree of risk faced by the
involved officers. Officers
should only utilize tactics and techniques with which they have been
The degree of public harm risk can be classified at three levels, as
can the techniques and tactics utilized to control pursuits.
Generally speaking, pursuits at a certain level reasonably justify
use of control techniques from the corresponding control level (i.e. Level
One Pursuit - Level One Control).
The various control techniques can be grouped as to their general
traits and common elements.
Interaction Techniques -- Largely because of body alarm
response (sometimes referred to as “Fight or Flight Syndrome”), these
techniques can be naturally occurring—that
is, they may occur without the officer intending to use them.
It is not uncommon for officers to use a reduced interval, or to
swing out to one side or the other (Pursuit Position), in their desire to
capture the fleeing suspect. While they may be natural in some cases, officers must guard
against the tendency to allow these techniques to be applied to excess.
Reduced interval trailing can easily become dangerous tail-gating,
and the Pursuit Position can lead to pulling alongside, thereby exposing
the officers to heightened hazards.
Intervention Techniques – These control techniques are not
naturally occurring. Active
Intervention Techniques require physical intervention by officers. They therefore typically require the presence of specialized
equipment, more than one police vehicle, or advanced planning.
Interdiction Techniques – These higher risk techniques
constitute the use of potential or actual deadly force.
They possess the same traits as Active Intervention Techniques, with
the added caveat that they place the officers in significant physical
Level One Pursuit/Level One Control
A Level One Pursuit is a pursuit initiated to apprehend an
individual fleeing after committing a simple traffic offense or a less
serious crime. Generally, such offenses as vandalism, minor theft, and
disorderly conduct, while misdemeanors, are considered to present a low
degree of risk to the public. Pursuit
for these offenses can be justified, yet many of the more hazardous pursuit
tactics should not be used, due to the minimal potential for public harm
posed by the offense. Techniques
and tactics that are generally acceptable in these instances are:
-- The simple act of following along behind the violator while giving both
visual and audible indication that the violator should stop, and advising
dispatch and other units of the violator’s location and actions.
Care should be taken to maintain a safe interval between the
violator’s vehicle and the police vehicle.
Position (Offset) -- Moving the police vehicle approximately one half
vehicle width to either side (similar to the position traditionally taken
when parking during a traffic stop), while continuing to Trail.
This offset position allows the officer to see oncoming traffic, and
to expose emergency warning lights to the view of oncoming vehicles.
It should also allow the officer to more readily anticipate the
violator’s actions, due to the enhanced visibility offered by the
position. Lastly, when
approaching an intersection, the offset position may allow the officer to
encourage the violator to turn in the desired direction.
Interval -- More closely following the violator, either while trailing
or while utilizing the pursuit position.
While this technique can present greater risk of collision, it does
facilitate greater visibility of the violator’s vehicle and its
occupants. It can also be
utilized to apply psychological pressure.
Deflation Devices – When a department has equipped and trained
officers in the use of these devices (sometimes called “spike strips”),
such equipment can be deployed as a method for establishing a relatively
low risk “roadblock”. Officers
should take care to plan adequately when selecting a location for
deployment, and should move a safe distance from the deployment zone.
Road Block -- The placement of one or more police vehicles in the
traveled portion of the roadway, in order to partially block the road, and
to indicate a denial of passage to the violator’s vehicle.
Although not absolutely necessary, officers frequently leave a
restricted route through
When the road is totally blocked, so that even a slow moving vehicle
cannot go around—or
the degree of risk is heightened. When
a complete blockage of the roadway is undertaken, officers should ensure
that the oncoming suspect has a clear view of the roadblock, and has ample
time to stop safely, should he or she decide to do so.
This complete blockage usually represents a higher level of control,
and could be constitutionally unreasonable
unless properly managed.
Level Two Pursuit/Level Two Control
Level two pursuits are those which are initiated for very hazardous
traffic offenses, such as driving while intoxicated or reckless driving, or
for more serious crimes, such as assault.
Level two pursuits are initiated for offenses that present a high
level of danger to the public, but not such a high level of danger that
deadly force is routinely justified in the apprehension attempt.
Techniques and tactics that are generally acceptable in these
Road Block -- The placement of one or more police vehicles in the path
of the violator’s vehicle, in order to cause it to slow and/or stop.
This is sometimes done by one vehicle, swerving back and forth from
lane to lane (difficult, as it requires anticipation of the violator’s
movements), and sometimes by two or three vehicles, moving along the
highway in echelon or abreast.
In -- A technique whereby two or more police units move into positions
around the fleeing vehicle, forming a “box”.
Once the box is formed, all police vehicles slow, causing the
violator in the box to slow as well. Because
Boxing In, or “channeling” as it is sometimes called, requires the
placement of one or more police vehicles in the path of the violator’s
vehicle, it is considered a form of Rolling Road Block.
Contact -- Intentional contact between a police vehicle and the
violator’s vehicle. Generally,
Controlled Contact is undertaken at lower speeds, and is frequently
intended to cause the violator to spin out of control or to leave the
roadway in a slow, but uncontrolled manner.
While this is the intended result, Controlled Contact collisions are
sometimes unpredictable, and may be viewed as a form of Ramming by the
legal system. They therefore involve application of potentially deadly
force. One technique that has
been developed to attempt to allow for safer Controlled Contact collisions
is the Precision Immobilization
Technique, or PIT Maneuver. The
use of such techniques calls for training, planning, opportunity, and
Level two control techniques are more aggressive in nature, and call
for police vehicles to move in front of a fleeing violator.
For this reason, they are more hazardous to the officers, and
require time to plan, develop and execute.
Level Three Pursuit/Level Three Control
Level three pursuits are those initiated following the commission of
life threatening felonies that usually justify the use of deadly force in
the apprehension of the fleeing violator.
Examples include armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and
murder. Techniques and tactics
that are generally acceptable in these instances are:
Contact – Sometimes referred to as “Ramming”. This represents a higher level of intentional contact between
a police vehicle and a violator’s vehicle.
Uncontrolled Contact is frequently attempted at higher speeds than
intentional collisions. Because
it is so unpredictable, Uncontrolled Contact presents a high degree of risk
to the officers involved, and may constitute deadly force, depending on the
circumstances of the incident.
of Firearms – There are some situations where firing a weapon at a
fleeing violator may be necessary in the immediate defense of the officer
or another. In most cases,
however, this is generally not good practice, due to the low likelihood of
success, and the hazard posed to the public by missed shots.
Additionally, if a bullet should strike the violator, his vehicle is
now pilotless, and presents a significant hazard in and of itself.
If the violator is not alone in the vehicle, then passengers against
whom deadly force may be inappropriate are put at great risk.
While some recent court decisions have indicated that police
officers do not owe a duty to passengers in a fleeing vehicle, this is by
no means clear in every jurisdiction.
Level three control techniques can be extremely hazardous to the
officers that attempt them, and should only be utilized in emergency
situations, where a human life is already at great risk.
In essence, level three control techniques are almost
indistinguishable from the use of deadly force, and therefore officers who
are going to use them should ask themselves if the death of the violator is
acceptable as an outcome to the event.
If the answer is anything but an unqualified yes, then the control
technique should not be used.
of the Continuum
There are three primary uses for the Pursuit Management Continuum;
policy development, training, and supervision.
Policy Development and Support
The Pursuit Management Continuum contains a classification system
for pursuit causation activities which, if incorporated into a
department’s policy, can be utilized as an aid to decision-making on the
part of street officers and supervisors.
Additionally, key elements of policy can be linked to the
classification system. For
example, it is fairly common for a department to restrict by policy the
number of police vehicles that may engage in a pursuit.
The theory is that the fewer vehicles there are involved, the lower
the risk and therefore the lower the liability exposure.
However, this does not take into account the nature of the pursuit
causation or the number of suspects involved.
Restricting a pursuit of three armed robbery suspects to two single
officer patrol units may be safer for the motoring public, but it is not
safer for the officers.
Departmental policy should indicate that the nature of the pursuit
causation should be considered when controlling the number of units in a
pursuit. By classifying the
pursuit as a Level Three pursuit, with multiple suspects, a safe number of
police units and officers can be assigned to the pursuit.
Utilization of the Pursuit Management Continuum as a training aid
can assist in linking the concept of escalation/de-escalation of control
methods to the conduct of a police pursuit.
Additionally, the relationship between the pursuit causation factors
(the previously mentioned public harm
risk) and the techniques that are reasonable and proper should become
more obvious to officers.
The Continuum can also be used to illustrate the increase in Officer Injury Potential that is inherent in escalation through
pursuit control levels. As
officers begin to take more aggressive actions to attempt the apprehension
of a violator, they increase the degree of risk to themselves.
Lastly, the Continuum can be used to explain the potential civil
rights ramifications of escalation through the various pursuit control
levels. As each succeeding
level is utilized, the degree of intrusion into the suspect’s existence
increases. While this
increasing invasiveness may be reasonable and proper under the
circumstances, it still may give rise to questions regarding potential
civil rights violations.
The vague descriptions of pursuit activity that are commonly used
during radio transmissions could be replaced with the descriptive Pursuit
Levels. Once this is done,
then all parties involved would be aware of the acceptable techniques.
The enhanced ability to communicate causation factors and approved
techniques will eliminate some of the confusion that typically surrounds
police pursuit radio communications.
An example of supervisory application of the Continuum might involve
a Level Two Pursuit through heavy traffic or some other type of high risk
personnel may choose to limit the officers to Control Level One, and so
advise them. Use of the
control levels makes direction clear and concise.
Utilization of the Continuum provides a series of benchmarks for the
supervision and direction of pursuits by the first-line supervisor. By utilizing these benchmarks, the supervisor can more
successfully manage the conduct of pursuits by officers, while at the same
time, more accurately evaluate the performance of officers engaging in
Police pursuit as it is currently practiced in the United States is
a relatively dangerous, inexact undertaking.
Officers, violators and the public are frequently at considerable
risk even when management control measures are attempted. Current methods of managing pursuits are cumbersome and
difficult to utilize. Communication
during pursuits is hampered by the lack of a system for classification of
pursuit causation factors, and the reasonable relationship of those factors
to available control techniques.
Implementation of the Pursuit Management Continuum should allow many
of these difficulties to be controlled.
Reasonable application of pursuit control techniques, as described
in the various control levels of the Continuum, should help to manage the
potential for officer injury or litigation arising from police pursuit