Over the last several decades, accidents of all types and especially driving accidents have become increasingly deadly for law enforcement. Today, in much of the United States, an officer is nearly as likely to be killed or injured by a car than by a perp with a gun.
Writing for a 2002 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Anthony J. Pinizzotto, Edward F. Davis, and Charles E. Miller III uncovered several key cognitive traits common to law enforcement officers that increase the likelihood of deadly accidents.
Through a series of interviews with the peers and supervisors, Dr. Pinizzotto (a clinical forensic psychologist in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy) found that officers killed in on-duty vehicle accidents were consistently “hardworking and service-oriented,” but tended to take risks based on their “performance comfort” (established over years of successfully carrying out duties), rather than making a calculated assessment of immediate factors (driving conditions, if the fleeing driver is a public threat, etc.) This combination of dedication and performance comfort often seemed to be compounded by “an increasing feeling of invincibility when inside a departmental vehicle. A sense of invincibility often accompanies a higher level of risk-taking behavior.”
Geoffrey Alpert is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. He specializes in the study of police pursuits. As Alpert explains, “[law enforcement officers] don’t want to give up. You want to catch the [suspect]. … Now the problem with that is the risk factors — traffic, congestion, this [suspect is] blowing lights. Every intersection is like playing Russian roulette.”
Properly Assessing Risk and Reward in High-Speed Pursuit
According to a 2010 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin report, part of this has to do with officers’ tendency to assume that a fleeing driver is wanted for a more serious offense. (Although that often does not appear to ultimately be the case) As a result, officers can overestimate the potential risks associated with “letting the suspect get away” (even temporarily). Writing for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin in 2002, John Hill noted that “Tunnel vision makes [officers] oblivious to what is going on around them. Some 96 percent of officers involved in a pursuit focus on catching the violator ‘if it’s the last thing (they’ll) ever do.'” Sadly, for many officers, catching that violator is indeed the last thing they ever do.
“This perfectly illustrates why my training goal is to prepare officers to have a controlled response to a crisis situation,” explains Chuck Deakins, FAAC Chief Public Safety Specialist/Pursuit Training Technologies (and a retired Lieutenant Commander). “Officers need to always take into account not only what can result from their own actions, but what might result from the suspect’s attempts to flee.” This demands an enormous amount of emotional discipline–under the most challenging possible circumstances. Deakins has found that, for most officers, the best way to develop this level of judgment and emotional discipline is with a simulation-based training solution. This type of training allows them to truly experience the emotional realities of a high-speed chase–and practice maintaining emotional distance and good judgment under pressure.