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

Militarization of Police

By Brian Thiem
About two months ago, Sacramento Police Officer Tara O’Sullivan was shot during a domestic dispute call by a man with a high-powered rifle. Other officers immediately took cover as the gunman continued shooting, preventing them from rescuing Tara as she lay dying in the back yard of a North Sacramento house.Tara-OSullivan-Life-Mattered[1]

Within minutes, numerous officers responded, but they were unable to get to Tara without subjecting themselves to gunfire.

I can only imagine the sense of utter helplessness felt by Tara and her fellow officers as she lay dying in that backyard while rifle rounds pinged around them, her brother officers wanting to rush to her aid, but knowing that doing so meant certain death.

Those officers were armed with handguns, firearms that are effective out to about 20 yards. They wore concealable Kevlar vests that covered a fraction of their bodies and were only capable of stopping the most common handgun rounds. The rifle bullets the gunman was firing would punch right through them.

It was nearly an hour before the department was able to enter the kill zone with an armored vehicle called a Bearcat and evacuate Tara. Whether Tara was already dead at that time or died en route to the hospital hasn’t been determined or hasn’t been publicly released.Bearcat

I’ve heard and read too many politicians, activists, and media outlets decrying the so-called militarization of law enforcement—the acquisition of armored vehicles and other tools and weapons beyond what a uniformed police officer uses, and related training for major tactical situations.

Earlier this year, the Alameda County (in which Oakland, the city where I worked for 25 years, is located) voted to eliminate SWAT-type scenarios from a regional law enforcement training exercise that is attended by law enforcement agencies from around the state because it “promotes the militarization of police.”

As a tactical commander and the commander of the special operations section for several years toward the end of my police career, I oversaw hundreds of SWAT operations, and through formal Risk Analysis processes, I determined the circumstances under which specialized tactical teams and equipment was appropriate. Those decisions required balancing resources (personnel, overtime) with officer and community safety, while weighing community expectations and concerns.

Therefore, I cringe when I see news reports of heavily armed FBI SWAT teams serving a search warrant at the house of a white-collar crime suspect, or SWAT teams using armored vehicles with a battering ram for routine search warrants.

The debate over police acquiring and deploying heavy tactical equipment and weapons and engaging in training exercises focusing on terrorist attacks and active shooters should continue in our communities. However, I know some Sacramento police officers who wished they had an armored vehicle closer and more specially trained tactical officers with rifles as they were pinned down by a crazed gunman and their sister lay dying nearby.

Tactical Communication: The Difference Between Fiction and Reality

By Micki Browning

Law enforcement officers receive a tremendous amount of training throughout their careers. My police academy alone was 852 hours. If popular culture were to be believed, our training would only consist of driving (fast), shooting (excessively), defensive tactics (often outnumbered and sustaining nary a scrape), and how to drink coffee and eat certain deep-fried dough products (without spilling or getting powdered sugar on our uniforms). What’s often overlooked is the amount of communication training officers receive. The truth is cops spend the majority of their time talking to people—and the better an officer is at communicating, the more effective they are in their job.

It’s no surprise that there are people who don’t want to talk to the police. Officers are trained to react to resistance and redirect it when it’s encountered. Writers and films are quick to portray officers jumping to a physical confrontation, but while that makes for great entertainment, it’s not the appropriate response when the resistance is merely verbal—at least not at first. But cops are human—and I speak from experience, here—they tend to be a sarcastic lot. Again, great fodder for fiction. Not so much if a cop wants to avoid talking to someone in internal affairs.

I know the importance of words. I was a crisis negotiator, I taught Communications at the academy, and now I’m a writer. On any given call, the level of danger officers face can change quickly (check out Isabella Maldonado’s post on crisis negotiation for the two words not to say). In this post, I want to focus on one way officers diffuse little conflicts before they become big problems.

Officers learn many communication strategies over the course of their careers, and the overarching goal is to gain voluntary compliance. Dr. George L. Thompson formalized one strategy that was taught to over a million officers as Verbal Judo.

To see it in action, let’s look at a traffic stop contact. While assessing the scene for safety concerns, the officer greets the driver, identifies himself (or herself) and his agency and informs the driver why he was stopped. Now the officer needs something from the driver—his license. Like a sales pitch, it all begins with the ask.

 

 

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Fortunately, the vast majority of people cooperate with law enforcement officers. When asked for a driver’s license, most individuals will produce it with a nervous smile.

But just for fun, let’s suppose he doesn’t…

It’s human nature to want to know the reason behind a request. In this scenario, the driver’s question is why should I give you my license? This is where cocky officers go off the rails. As in parenting, “Because I said so” rarely produces the desired result. But driving is a privilege and not a right and taking a quick moment to explain that the law requires motor vehicle operators to present their license to a peace offer upon demand is usually all that is necessary to resolve that initial conflict.

But our hypothetical driver doesn’t care….

Now it’s time to let your inner rhetorician run amok! It’s time to tell the driver about all the unpleasant consequences that could happen based on his refusal to present his license. Rather than a simple driving infraction, the driver is about to graduate to a misdemeanor offense. Misdemeanor offenses can land a person in jail. If he gets arrested, his car will be towed. Tow fees are expensive. Not to mention, the driver is going to miss dinner.

But if he remains unconvinced…

Without any dramatic eye rolls, the officer simply confirms that the driver would rather be subjected to the above consequences than provide his license. Common sense usually prevails by this point.

But if (s)he lacks common sense….

practicing

Cops don’t bluff. The violator is going to jail.

Fiction versus Reality

Less than ten percent of communication is accomplished by the actual words that are spoken. Voice intonation communicates more of the message, but if you want to know what someone really means, watch their body language—even when it contradicts the words being spoken.

On some level, everyone recognizes non-verbal cues. These cues are what writers use to convey what’s really happening between two people. Imagine how a person stands. What expression crosses her face? Is she making eye contact? What does she do with her hands? These are all clues about how open or disingenuous that person is being at that moment in time.

We’ve all said things in anger. Cops can’t afford to do that. Controlling situations with words that are defensible in court coupled with command presence means not having to fight someone into handcuffs. In real life this is good. In fiction? Maybe not. As an author, I’ve written characters that react badly toward anyone who challenged his or her authority. But let me assure you, on the street, it’s much better to have the skills to stay on track, remain unruffled, and get the job done.

Safely.