The information presented here is meant to be used as a rule of thumb guideline for vehicle pursuit questions on police entrance exams. Both the police written test and the oral board interview may include judgment questions regarding vehicle pursuits. Police agencies do not want to hire someone who disregards the safety of the public in order to stop a vehicle for a minor traffic violation.
Vehicle pursuits are always regulated by jurisdictional policies and applicable city, state, and federal laws. This article is intended to provide a common sense approach to vehicle pursuits based on a compilation of different police policies from several jurisdictions.
Decision To Initiate A Vehicle Pursuit
The officer intending to stop a vehicle will make every effort to avoid a vehicle pursuit. Activation of lights and siren are delayed whenever possible, until the officer is close enough that the opportunity to flee appears to be unavailable to the operator of the suspect vehicle.
If the operator of the suspect vehicle chooses to avoid being stopped and attempts to flee, the decision to initiate a vehicle pursuit lies with the individual officer.
Certain actions taken by the operator of the fleeing vehicle may escalate the danger to the public, the suspect operator, and the pursuing officer(s). In these cases, jurisdictional policy will prevail in determining whether a pursuit is continued or called off.
Any officer involved in a vehicle pursuit must drive with due regard for the safety of all persons concerned and any exemptions granted the officer, as an authorized operator of an emergency vehicle, do not include protection from the consequences of that officer driving with reckless disregard for the safety of others.
A vehicle pursuit study, covering 800 municipal and county agencies, indicated that two factors were likely to determine support for a vehicle pursuit:
1. The severity of the offense committed by the suspect
2. The risk to the public (traffic, road, and weather conditions)
When an officer initiates a vehicle pursuit, dispatch should be immediately notified of:
- Unit Identification
- Location, Direction of Travel, Indication of Speed
- Reason for the Pursuit
- Suspect Vehicle Description and Plate Number - if known
- Number of Occupants and Description - if known
It is important for the officer in pursuit to ensure the dispatcher and backup officers hear and understand radio transmissions. Roll up windows and give regular location updates.
When a pursuit involves excessive emergency speed and emergency driving tactics, the pursuing officer must consider:
- The severity and nature of the violation
- The likelihood of apprehending the suspect
- The public safety hazards created by a high-speed pursuit
- The traffic encountered during the pursuit - volume, speed, direction
- The pursuit environment: residential, commercial, school zone, open highway
- The population density
- The familiarity with the roads being traveled
- The weather and road conditions
- The driving skill of the officer and condition of the police vehicle being driven
Every police officer must be able to determine when a vehicle pursuit should not be initiated and when to break off a pursuit.
Some common sense guidelines include:
Pursuit would create a clear and unreasonable danger to the officer, the pursued vehicle or other users of the highway. The degree of danger and risk to public safety should outweigh the need for immediate apprehension. The suspect has been identified and apprehension can be accomplished later without the danger of pursuit.
A final common sense point in vehicle pursuits is:
Discharging a firearm at, or from, a moving vehicle is dangerous and ineffective in most cases. The use of deadly force in a vehicle pursuit will always be dictated by jurisdictional policy.
Vehicle Pursuit Questions - (All answers should be based on the above information).
1. An officer observes a vehicle drive through a red light and attempts to stop the vehicle to cite the traffic violation. The operator of the vehicle flees at a high rate of speed through heavy rush hour traffic. The officer recognizes the driver and obtained the vehicle's license plate number. This officer's best course of action would be:
a) pursue the vehicle because traffic violators should not be allowed to escape
b) not pursue because the vehicle operator has been identified and can be arrested later
c) not pursue because the risks outweigh the violation
d) both b and c
The correct answer is d). Because of traffic volume, the minor traffic violation involved and the officer's identification of the suspect, the officer should not initiate a pursuit.
2. An officer is involved in a high-speed vehicle pursuit. Which of the following conditions should not be considered by the pursuing officer when deciding to continue or break off the pursuit:
a) The nature of the violation
b) The type of headlights on the fleeing vehicle
c) The volume of the traffic
d) The pursuit environment: residential, commercial, school zone, open highway
e) The population density
The correct answer is b). The remaining answers should be considered when determining whether to continue a pursuit.
3. An officer initiating a pursuit notifies the dispatcher that a pursuit is underway and gives all the following information, EXCEPT:
a) Police unit identification
b) Location, speed and direction of travel
c) Reason for the pursuit
d) Suspect vehicle description, including license number
e) The last time the officer was involved in a vehicle pursuit
The correct answer is e). Only information pertinent to the vehicle pursuit that aids the dispatcher or backup officers in the apprehension of the suspect is transmitted.
4. The Number One factor studies have determined supporting vehicle pursuits is
a) traffic and road conditions
b) offense committed by the suspect
c) volume, type, speed and direction of the traffic
d) officer's driving skill
The correct answer is b). Results of a study indicate that law enforcement personnel and members of the public focus on the severity of the offense committed by the suspect when supporting a pursuit. The second most important factor was the risk to the public (defined by traffic, road conditions, and the weather).
Some jurisdictions have very restrictive pursuit policies. For example, the Denver Police Department enacted a policy restricting vehicle pursuits and officers are not authorized to pursue vehicles that:
- are stolen or involved in non-violent crimes
- are simply fleeing
- are in violation of traffic laws
- are involved in hit and run accidents not involving death or serious injury
Due to the increase in lawsuits, many municipalities have enacted heavy restrictions on pursuits. However, a recent poll by the US Justice Department indicates that officer initiated vehicle pursuits are generally supported by the public as a quality crime fighting tool. 70% of those polled said pursuits were a necessary risk in the war on crime. Over half of those polled thought the decision to pursue should made by the officer and not restricted by department policy. Many experienced cops believe that over-restricting their ability to conduct vehicle pursuits, severely handcuffs their ability to do effective police work. They feel such restrictions give the bad guys another weapon against law enforcement.
Definition of Vehicle Pursuit - An active attempt by one or more police officers to apprehend a suspect who is operating a motor vehicle and trying to avoid capture.
Suspect tactics may include driving at high-speeds and evasive tactics, such as driving off the roadway, making sudden or unexpected movements or maintaining a legal speed, but failing to yield to the officer's signal to stop. Routine traffic stops or other instances where officers activate emergency lights and siren and the operator stops within a reasonably short distance are not a vehicle pursuit.
When answering common-sense questions about high-speed pursuits, consider this:
No assignment is of such importance and no task need be expedited with such speed, that the risk to public safety become secondary. No task undertaken in the official capacity of a police officer is of such importance to justify the reckless disregard of the officer's safety, or the safety of others.
Before initiating a vehicle pursuit, an officer should determine if:
- The suspect presents a clear and immediate threat to the safety of others
- The suspect has committed or is attempting to commit a serious crime
- The necessity of immediate apprehension outweighs the level of danger created by pursuit
All emergency vehicle operations should be conducted in strict accordance with existing statutes. When engaged in any vehicle pursuit, an officer will simultaneously use the police vehicle emergency lights and siren.
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