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Precision Immobilization Technique: The Best Tool for Ending Police Pursuits?

 

The “precision immobilization technique” (or “PIT”) is one of the very few tools law enforcement has to stop a dangerous pursuit immediately. But it carries certain risks and is becoming increasingly controversial.

When performed at lower speeds (below 35 mph), this maneuver—sometimes also called a “pursuit intervention technique” or “tactical vehicle intervention” (“TVI”)—is generally regarded as safe. The fleeing car consistently spins 180 degrees before rolling to a stop. Law enforcement moves in for the arrest, often with little resistance from the disoriented suspect.

Experts likewise agree that as speeds increase beyond 45 mph, the outcomes become increasingly unpredictable.

Nonetheless, an estimated 45 percent of agencies that approve the use of precision immobilization techniques allow officers to do so at any speed.

Additionally, modern driver-assist features (like stability control) will alter PIT’s effect on vehicle dynamics. As a result, even when an officer has been extensively trained in precision immobilization techniques both on the EVOC and the simulator, the target vehicle (and their own vehicle) may behave in ways they simply cannot predict.

Precision Immobilization Technique gives police training on how to stop pursuits.

Seeing professionals calmly PIT on a closed training course—with trained law officers piloting the “target” vehicle, all piloting vehicles in good repair under fair weather conditions—makes it look like a straight-forward, low-risk maneuver. But diving into the real-world data—where the fleeing driver may be panicked, under the influence, or merely unskilled, and the fleeing vehicle modified or in ill-repair—paints a different picture. This data-driven picture of PIT outcomes has many departments reconsidering how to handle high-speed pursuits.

The Controversy Over Precision Immobilization Techniques

In the summer of 2020, the Washington Post published an extensive report on the use of PIT maneuvers in the United States. According to the Post, in the last four years, at least 30 people have died (and hundreds have been injured, including officers) when PIT maneuvers have been used to end pursuits (even when doing so strictly within departmental policy). In just two of the deaths were the drivers suspected of serious felonies. In more than half of the 30 PIT-triggered crash fatalities, the chase followed a stop for a minor traffic violation, with no other crime suspected. In eight of the fatal crashes, the chase was in pursuit of a stolen vehicle. Of those killed, nearly half were suspected of no wrongdoing: 10 were passengers in the fleeing vehicles, and four (more than 10 percent of the total) were bystanders or victims of the crime.

Delving into specific departments—where more detailed records were available—the Post uncovered some truly alarming numbers: In a single year (2019), the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in Florida ended 61 of their more than 200 police pursuits with PIT maneuvers—roughly 30 percent of all police pursuits for that agency. Sine 1997, the Georgia State Patrol (GSP) has performed more than 1,500 PIT maneuvers. Thirty-five people have been killed by GSP PITs during those 22 years, seven of them in just the last three years. In other words, Georgia State Patrol PITs kill roughly 22 people per 1000 PITs—which makes the PIT maneuver roughly ten times deadlier than smoking.

These risks have divided law enforcement agencies nationwide: “Of the 142 law enforcement agencies that responded to The Post, 74 said they do not use the maneuver. One would not say.”

Addressing the PIT Training Controversy

Chuck Deakins, lead subject matter specialist with FAAC’s Training Group, can see both sides of this argument. He served as a law enforcement officer for thirty years and has decades of experience as a police pursuit trainer.

Deakins is quick to point out that the PIT is one of the very few offensive tools law enforcement has to stop a pursuit immediately. “I personally would hate to lose that offensive tool, because in some cases I believe you do have to go in and take the risk to stop that pursuit, because every second that pursuit goes on, there’s potential for a real disaster.”

But on the other hand, Deakins is quick to acknowledge that “the vehicle is even more dangerous to the officer than the gun.” Most years, roughly as many officers are killed in the line of duty by motor vehicle accidents as firearms. “We recognize the risk factor to the suspects and innocent passengers and the public. There’s just as much risk to that officer moving in to make this maneuver as there is to that other car. Some cars don’t know what’s going on, and they’ll let you get into ideal opposition. But many won’t, and they’ll take evasive action and put you into a situation where, at 100 mph, you’re trying to watch what’s in front of you, in back, to the sides, and catch up, too. That’s a lot to ask.”

Integrating Judgement Training into PIT Training

Deakins specializes in simulation-based pursuit training, specifically because it allows officers to safely rehearse being in extremely stressful situations and practice a broad set of skills—not simply driving, but also maintaining their situational awareness de-escalating their emotional state, and so on.

Deakins stresses that, as with so many aspects of law enforcement, there are two critical parts to the PIT maneuver: the skills to do it correctly and the judgment to choose that tool at the right time.

“That’s why I don’t advocate teaching to PIT entirely in the sim. PIT training really does have to be on track with two vehicles. What I do advocate is that you get inside the officer’s head in advance and map out when they are going to decide to PIT, under what circumstances and in what locations.” Officers can then make those calls in the sim, under less-than-ideal conditions, and experience the outcomes of those decisions.