Police Pursuits: The Thrill of the Chase

I’ll admit it. I like to drive fast — and as an officer, if certain conditions were met, I could legally flick on my lights and siren and disregard the rules of the road. After all, it’s nearly impossible to catch violators without exceeding the speed limit. But it was a calculated risk. While I was exempt from the vehicle code statutes, at no time was I relieved of my duty to drive in a safe manner and with due regard to the safety of others.  

In the police academy, we had about 80 hours of vehicle operation instruction. Driving was considered a critical task: fail driving, fail the academy. (For the curious, firearms and defensive tactics rounded out the critical trifecta.) The coursework included precision driving, routine vehicle operation, and high-speed pursuit driving — all to prepare us for our duties as officers. On patrol, we were more likely to collide with objects while parking or at slow speed than at higher speeds, but for every mile of increased speed, the possibility of catastrophic injury or damage increased as well.

The flashing lights of a police car.

My academy was on the grounds of a decommissioned air base that had been repurposed. As cadets, we practiced our driving skills on unused runways. For most of us, it was the first time we’d driven a patrol car, and the academy cars were outfitted with all the standard radios and gear, plus they were modified to include full roll cages and 5-point safety harnesses. During high-speed exercises, we wore helmets.

The precision driving course was a cone course where cadets had to maneuver the car through various parking, tight turns, and reverse driving patterns. Routine patrol operations included using the radio while driving and patrolling techniques — which was really all about not becoming so distracted that you drove into a wall, or curb, or that sweet little elderly man crossing legally in the sidewalk. 

Decision making was fun. With an instructor in the passenger seat, the cadet had to drive into the bottom of the Y shaped cone pattern at various speeds. At the last second the instructor would yell right or left. The goal was to react quickly enough to end up in the appropriate lane. A lot of cones gave their lives during the exercise but every cadet learned that the faster their speed, the less time they had to react to outside demands. 

One of the most enjoyable exercises took place after the fire department came in and soaped the runways. While driving, friction is your friend. It keeps the wheels of your vehicle in contact with the road. Mix static friction, rolling friction, torque, soap, and giddy cadets together and you’ve got all the ingredients for a great course on skid management and braking. It was probably the closest we came to playing during the academy.

As much fun as it was let loose on a skid pan, my favorite class was pursuit driving. The cone course was massive. Instructors sat in the passenger seats, and during the initial passes, coached the drivers through curves and corners, advising when to brake, when to accelerate, and how to use the straight-aways. After a couple of spins, a suspect vehicle entered the course — and the chase was on. 

For the uninitiated, pursuit driving is a lot like playing tag — only ideally without the contact. It is easy for new officers to get tunnel vision, and cops must fight the mindset that catching the suspect is always the ultimate goal. It’s not. Maintaining public safety is. On the street, pursuit driving is an ongoing exercise in risk management. In the academy, it was our first and last opportunity to chase another car without the weight of liability. On that runway, we killed cones, spun out of control, lost our suspects. We also learned how to carve corners, push our limits, and control our emotions. 

I really didn’t think much about our instructors’ role in the passenger seat until I became a field training officer. Few things are scarier than sitting next to a trainee on their first code-three run. A couple of them wrapped the mic cord around the steering column because in their excitement, they forgot to put it back on the stand. That first pursuit is sensation overload: the roar of the engine, the smell of brakes, a blaring siren, red and blue lights bouncing outside the windows, the taste of adrenaline. Experience helps cops manage the overload, but it never stops being exciting.

My academy training made me a safer driver. It taught me to look beyond the hood of my car and assess my surroundings for hazards. It revealed the limits of my ability. It demonstrated that cars have limits, too, and that the quality of tires really does matter. Lights and sirens may give an officer the right of way, but they don’t add a magical layer of protection around the car. And it’s always better to arrive safely at one’s destination than crash along the way.

Happy New Year!

Micki Browning

4 thoughts on “Police Pursuits: The Thrill of the Chase

  1. Sometimes the knuckleheads who are being chased run red lights and stop signs. This is dangerous for all involved and others near the intersections. We’ve had many innocent civilians killed by drivers fleeing the police in Milwaukee. The decision to persue is awesome, and subject to a lot of second guessing. My answer is always, don’t run from the cops.

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  2. Tom, as you mentioned, the risk to uninvolved people is exactly why many agencies have such restrictive pursuit policies, and why the decision to continue or to terminate the pursuit is assessed and continually reassessed. There isn’t a cop alive who wants to lose a pursuit, but if it’s headed toward a school zone and the original violation is a misdemeanor traffic offense, it’s time to stop pursuing. It used to be that all the blame fell on the suspect because his decision to flee was the root cause of any resulting mayhem. That isn’t the case any longer. The original violation weighs heavily in the amount of risk an officer can reasonably take while pursuing a violator. Reasonableness is hard to define and is always going to be scrutinized. And while often a suspect is running for more reasons than what the officer knows at the time, officers can only act upon what they know. To quote the Peter Parker Principle, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s a balancing act.

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  3. Micki: Great article! I remember the adrenaline-pumping fun of pursuits in my early days at Oakland PD. But as I aged and cities recognized the liability of pursuits, I became much more selective on who I chased and how I chased them. When I became a supervisor and command officer, I had to rein in the current versions of officers who were like how I was. It pissed them off when I terminated chases, and chewed them out after they engaged in needless, risky pursuits and Code 3 runs. But I know I may have saved their lives or their careers by teaching them that it’s not worth getting someone killed to catch a auto thief, for example, who a judge will probably not give jail time to anyway. Now, if it’s a murderer or serial rapist, I say chase him to the end of the earth.

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    1. Thanks, Brian! The most difficult pursuit I ever engaged in was not one where I was directly involved in the chase. It was the first pursuit after I became a sergeant and I had to make decisions based on another person’s radio transmissions. Suddenly, everything was cast in a light of liability. As I mentioned in another comment, it is a balancing act, but as officers, we are the one’s held to the standard of reasonableness and due regard for everyone’s safety.

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