What is it really like to be involved in a police pursuit? Instead of watching reruns of Cops or videos on YouTube, we talked with officers who told us real stories from the road, raw and unfiltered. While the bad guys were always apprehended in the stories we heard, that's not always the case. And the more we found out, the more complicated the issue of high-speed police pursuits became.Pursuing Danger
Charles Craft is a retired Chief of Police from Troy, Michigan, and the Director of the Police Academy at Oakland Community College. "In my 32 years of police work, I was involved in lots of pursuits," he said. "The wildest one was a guy that was fleeing from a sexual assault. I recall that he was driving a huge old Cadillac Eldorado.
"He was flying, running anywhere from 90 to 100 mph. We had cars in front of the suspect clearing the traffic to the shoulders, and then one of our cars attempted to block the suspect with his cruiser. I watched the Cadillac hit the patrol car's rear end and punt it right off the road. The Cadillac had so much weight that the impact didn't slow it down one bit.
"After another couple miles, we were in position to try to slow him down again. We had another patrol car in front of the suspect, whom I was still tailing. Our plan was to box the suspect in. As we closed in on him from the front and rear simultaneously -- and we're still going nearly 100 mph -- I saw a huge flash from inside the suspect's car. Our boxing maneuver worked and we slowed the Cadillac between our two cars and the guardrail. Once we got it stopped, we took up defensive positions outside our cruisers because this guy was dangerous.
"When we didn't see any movement in the car, we approached it to find that the suspect had a shotgun in the car." He had used it to end his own life, while driving nearly 100 mph."
After Craft finished recounting this incident he added, "You might think that the police want to get in a pursuit and that it's cool and exciting. But that's not the case at all. Pursuits are just too dangerous."
The Anatomy Of A High-Speed Pursuit
"As soon as a suspect runs, it gets pretty hairy really fast," said Lieutenant Keith Wilson, the commanding officer of the Michigan State Police Precision Driving Unit. "Officers behind the wheel during a pursuit have to find a way to manage their fear and anxiety to see the big picture."
Lt. Wilson explained the timeline of a typical high-speed pursuit, which starts when someone flees from an officer. The first thing the officer will do is to notify the dispatcher about the situation, the direction of travel, the vehicle's license plate, and the suspected reason for the incident. "But even as this is happening," said Lt. Wilson, "The officer is already thinking about how to end the chase as quickly and safely as possible."
"We're always asking the question, 'Is this worth the risk?' and 'Do we need to immediately apprehend this person?'," said Lt. Wilson, "We train officers to constantly evaluate the situation, and sometimes they call things off."
However, if the chase is on, officers generally maintain visual contact but don't follow too closely because they don't want to push suspects to drive faster and more recklessly. By involving other officers as quickly as possible, the Michigan State Police work as a team to come up with a plan to end the chase using rolling roadblocks or technologies such as stop-sticks that puncture the fleeing vehicle's tires. More aggressive moves such as those that would cause the suspect's car to spin out are used only as a last resort.Risk vs. Necessity
The Michigan State Police require that all officers complete an advanced driving course that focuses on precision and pursuit techniques. The course includes eight hours of classroom learning and 32 hours on a closed track designed and built just for this type of training. Officers complete a refresher course every two years. The Michigan State Police program is recognized as one of the country's best and accepts pupils from agencies across the nation.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that no matter how well trained the police are, suspects who flee pose a huge risk to public safety. One of the surprises we found is that it's not just criminals who run from law enforcement. Lt. Wilson said there's no way to predict who will flee and who won't. In his 24-year career, he said, "I've seen all kinds of citizens make the choice."
Officer Frank Zielinski drives a cruiser in a community bordering Detroit. He said about half the people he has seen run are just regular people who panic. "They may have a traffic warrant or perhaps they're driving on a suspended license, but they're not bank robbers or drug dealers," he said, expressing his frustration that people would become so reckless over relatively minor infractions.
Lawyer Matt Walton of Mt. Clemens, MI, said regardless of whether the person flees there is little wisdom in the public being put at risk over traffic tickets or other minor infractions, "acts [that] become criminal because the government says so, not because they have destroyed lives or property or otherwise offended the moral consciousness."
It's for this reason that communities can and do place restrictions on when the police can pursue a fleeing suspect. Lt. Wilson noted that the policies of the Michigan State Police generally follow Walton's risk assessment, but that the ultimate decision is left to the individual officer, under the understanding that only they can make the best decision about whether the need for apprehension is outweighed by the danger.
"Michigan's policy is known by criminals," said Lt. Wilson, "They know we'll chase them down using all the means we have, and we absolutely believe that this helps prevent high-speed pursuits. I don't believe that abolishing all high-speed pursuits would be good for public safety."
Criminals should note that the Dodge Chargers driven by Michigan troopers are capable of more than 140 mph. Additionally, all police forces use radios -- and there's no car that's faster than a radio signal.