Although situational awareness training has gained a lot of momentum in recent years, there’s one area of law enforcement where adoption lags: Police driving—and especially high-speed pursuit.
For nearly 30 years the Justice Department has considered police pursuits “the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities.” We drive so much, it’s easy to forget that driving kills as many officers as violence.
But on top of that, thousands—if not tens of thousands—of people are injured during high-speed chases each year. And up to 50% of those injuries and deaths are suffered by innocent bystanders. According to a 2015 study funded by the US Department of Justice, over a seven-year period in the mid-2000s, Chicago alone paid out roughly $50 million in settlements for deaths and injuries during police pursuits. $1.3 million of that was related to a single short chase of a suspected drunk driver.
We know that high-speed pursuit is extensive and dangerous. All too often, we feel like we have no choice to accept these as “necessary risks,” part of the “cost of doing the business” of reducing crime.
But, given the extremely high rate of injury and death—among both responding officers and innocent civilians—it’s worth re-examining. Do we need to engage in all of the pursuits we do in order to maintain our gains in public safety and reduced crime? Or can we both reduce chases and reduce crime?
Fewer Chases and Fewer Crimes?
If our goal is to reduce crime, it’s worth noting that we can sharply restrict pursuits and still see crime rates decline. In the mid-2000s, Dallas police began restricting chases. Some predicted a surge in crime would follow, with criminals taking advantage of the lower likelihood of being immediately apprehended. Instead, Dallas saw the opposite:
“The Dallas crime rate has plummeted since 2006—from 81 crimes per 1,000 residents to 48 crimes per 1,000 residents in 2013, according to FBI crime reports. City police have been involved in only one fatal chase since 2006, [Dallas PD Assistant Chief Randall] Blankenbaker said. [Crime rates in Dallas have since remained roughly half what they were in 2006.] Phoenix and Orlando also have seen their crime rates fall substantially since adopting policies that allow pursuits only for suspected violent felons, FBI reports show.”
Weaving Situational Awareness Training into Police Driver Training
“This perfectly illustrates why my training goal is to prepare officers to have a controlled response to a crisis situation,” explains Chuck Deakins, lead subject matter specialist with FAAC’s Training Group (and a retired Lieutenant Commander with decades of training experience).
Deakins notes that, in most cases, officer and bystander injury is not the result of the officer making a driving error. These deaths and injuries arise from the fleeing suspect’s erratic driving and poor decisions.
“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.” When officers have worked with systems designed for situational awareness training as well as fundamental driving skills, they are better prepared to see when it’s time to call off (or entirely skip) a pursuit. This capacity to switch tactics as situations evolve leads to fundamentally better policing. (That better, fundamentally more agile policing is a possible reason cities can pursue fewer criminals and yet still see crime rates drop.)