Sergeant James Post
STOPPING THE BAD GUYS IN THEIR TRACKS
Ever since the wild, wild west (and earlier), the bad guys have run from the good guys. Since then, we’ve been trying to figure out how to stop them before they hurt innocent citizens or one of us.
Of course, we’ve always had firearms available to us, but those have been pretty much ineffective at stopping moving objects from stagecoaches to Challenger Hellcats. Fleeing felons on horseback or Ninja crotch rockets make smaller targets, of course, but only if you can keep up with them.
Car chases are the adrenalin pounding, brief moments which interrupt hours of boredom and they can be rewarding or frustrating. They are also the bread and butter of nearly every cop movie or TV show ever made. Over the last 20+ years, I’ve written about my own car chases – the good, the bad and the ugly – but here is one more I’ll share which was easily the most frustrating experience of my career.
One evening as we were at roll call, we overheard on the station monitor a brother officer call in a car chase. As we listened, he reported he was on the street which ran in front of the station and headed our way. We all ran downstairs and out into the street as the high-speed parade approached. Of course, we collectively thought, “What the hell do we do now?” There were no large rocks or bricks lying about; we weren’t about to stand shoulder to shoulder in the street; and we certainly couldn’t shoot at this reported traffic violator. So, we all did the only thing we could do – we threw our wooden night sticks at him as he flew by. I can only imagine the great stories he told his buddies about a bunch of crazy cops throwing tree limbs at him!
In the early days of motorized cops and crooks, the chases usually ended at the city limits or at the county or state line, but since criminals know no boundaries, most “hot pursuit” laws across the country today allow us to pursue them until apprehended.
My own history notwithstanding, this issue’s column is all about halting motor vehicle pursuits, aka car chases, with everyone involved still alive at the conclusion. The good guys get to go home and the bad guys get to go to the gray bar hotel. We’re not going to debate different agencies’ car chase policies, but we do accept the notion that there are certain individuals who are always going to run – either on foot, bicycle, skateboard, Jet Ski®, motorcycle, or car. It’s just in their DNA to run and they ALL think they can get away. They may have just committed a horrendous crime, or be wanted, or drunk, stoned or crazy, or simply just have watched too many police chases on YouTube. Regardless of their motivation, if they are endangering lives, we have to stop them.
Historically, by far, the oldest and simplest method was a roadblock – two or more police cars completely blocking a roadway. It looks great in a movie, but, in actuality, it’s an expensive, dangerous way to stop someone hell-bent on getting away. At some point, someone suggested that we give the bad guys a safe way to avoid hitting police cars and cops; usually, a car-size gap in the middle of the roadblock or room around the ends of the roadblock. So, that’s what they did and the chase was on again.
A somewhat safer variation is called a “rolling roadblock,” wherein an offender’s vehicle is boxed in by officers in front, in back and on either side as the officers slow down to a stop. In theory and rehearsal, this works well, but it is an extremely difficult and dangerous maneuver to accomplish in the real world, especially at freeway and higher speeds. Of course, the elephant in the room is the person being pursued, because you have no idea how they will react. If they are intent on a “suicide by cop” scenario, the result could be catastrophic.
Over the past decade or so, there have been several devices created to stop escaping vehicles, such as motorized sleds which pursuing officers can deploy to disable a vehicle and a dart-like affair which can be shot into the rear of the offender’s car to track it electronically.
By far, the most popular method being used is the spike strip, also known as traffic strips or stop sticks, but formally known as tire deflation devices. These are sections of various flexible or solid materials which contain sharp nail-like devices which can puncture tires, creating a “blowout.” A variation is hollow spikes which puncture tires and remain in them allowing a slower deflation. These devices are stored folded or rolled up and are manually deployed by an officer in advance of a vehicle being chased, but therein lies the fatal flaw which has resulted in the deaths and injuries of many police officers. A 2015 New York Times article stated that over 30 officers and civilians have been killed in the two decades since spike strips became popular.
The deaths and injuries of officers usually happen when they misjudge the distance from the suspect vehicle, or the offender swerves to miss the strips and either hits the officer or his (or her) cruiser, or intentionally aims at the officer. Earlier this year, a tragic example occurred in Washington State when a pursuing officer struck and killed the officer deploying the device. Pedestrians and innocent folks have been killed in accidents when the vehicle being chased blows tires. If none of these occur, suspects can simply drive around the strips or turn off as they approach and the strips are sometimes ineffective on heavy truck tires. In 2012, the FBI issued a bulletin urging law enforcement agencies to explore other ways to handle chases. Many departments, such as Dallas and Wichita, have banned the use of these devices.
As we’ve seen, safe and effective options for stopping fleeing vehicles are dwindling; however, if you police in a large metropolitan area, you likely have air support via either helicopters or fixed wing. Of course, they can’t land in front of an offender, but they are great at tracking them, particularly when the perp(s) abandon their wheels and run on foot. Before we know it, we’ll have unmanned drones to help, too. Eyes in the sky, plus excellent modern radio communications, allow the ground officers to back off and let the air officers take over and, in the case of nonviolent traffic violators, we can let them continue on until they run out of gas, bail or make it home to momma where the ground troops can descend upon them.
Unfortunately, there is a particular class of criminals who have to be stopped by any means, lest they escape and jeopardize the lives of hostages, innocent citizens and fellow officers.
The PIT Maneuver
Those of us who have been involved in law enforcement for a few decades remember the notion that many of the innovations in policing came from the West Coast, particularly the LAPD, CHP and San Bernardino County; however, you may be surprised to learn that the PIT maneuver, aka Pursuit Intervention Technique, was developed by the Fairfax County, VA, Police Department over 30 years ago. Also known as Pursuit Immobilization Technique, Precision Immobilization Technique or Parallel Immobilization Technique, the PIT maneuver was actually adapted from the “bump and run” technique in stock car racing, where drivers would bump a competitor in a rear corner to cause them to lose traction and spin out.
Police PIT actions are designed to accomplish basically the same thing – to stop the offender’s forward motion by impacting a rear corner, usually on the driver’s side. Of course, there are many more details, requirements and procedures involved, but suffice it to say, a PIT cannot be performed in a standard police cruiser or SUV without sufficient reinforcement and a well-trained officer.
Several manufacturers of push bumpers or push bars now offer optional attachments which bolt to their push bars to protect the cruiser’s expensive front ends when performing PITs. These include Setina Mfg.’s patented PB-5, P.I.T. Fender Guard Systems and Setina’s PB-9, P.I.T. Fender Guard Systems; Federal Signal’s PBX Series Push Bumpers with optional HRPO PIT bars and Wing Wraps; Go Industries’ P.I.T. Bumpers with optional Lower Pit Arms; Go Rhino!’s Heavy-Duty Wrap Around Brush Guards that bolt to their front uprights; and Westin’s Elite and Elite XD bumpers with optional PIT Bar Elite and Elite Wing Wraps.
Kansas City, MO, Police Department
Kansas City, MO, covers 319 square miles and consumes the majority of three counties – Jackson, Clay and Platte. City expansion has landlocked several smaller cities and the population of the metropolitan area is about 2.25 million. Kansas City is intersected by three interstates and several other highways. The interstates and some of the highways all come together in a spaghetti bowl of freeways in downtown KC.
Kansas City has no fewer police pursuits than other major cities and probably more due to the freeway system and quick access to smaller jurisdictions with fewer officers. Kansas City car chases have been seen on network television for years, including the popular TV show, “COPS,” which has featured my alma mater, the Kansas City, MO, Police Department several times. COPS producers point to one KCPD chase as the most spectacular they have ever filmed, primarily because they had film crews imbedded with two departments, along with a helicopter overhead. The chase began east of the city and headed west on I-70. Naturally, more units joined the chase in every jurisdiction it passed through, with KCPD becoming lead agency once it was within their city limits. The chase wound through the spaghetti bowl, over the Kansas River and into Kansas City, Kansas, (yes, there actually are two Kansas Cities) where it was terminated. The chase was notable because of the length, but also because, for most of it, the fool was driving on front rims only, spewing sparks like 100 Independence Day sparklers. Filmed from overhead, the chase was heart-stopping and could not have been scripted better by any writer in Hollywood.
Since the early 1970s, the KCPD has been recognized for their innovative programs and procedures and that continues to today. As their Ford CVPIs were being retired and the transition to Dodge Chargers, PI Sedans and Utilities began, the department became aware of the difference between installing push bars on the body-on-frame Crown Vics and the unibody units with subframes (sometimes called engine cradles). As the newer cars (without the structural integrity of full frames) started suffering expensive front end damage when pushing vehicles or in accidents, the command staff realized something had to change. So, in late 2017, the department actually renamed their push bumpers “Accessory Racks” and mandated department vehicles would not be used to push vehicles except in emergency situations.
Officer Mike Moats of the Driver’s Training Section had been urging the department to consider implementing PIT maneuvers for some time and Chief Richard Smith approved it. Officer Moats and his fellow Driver Training Instructors traveled to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glencoe, CO, to learn the technique and teach others. At the current time, only a team of 20 tactical enforcement officers will be trained in the procedure which KCPD has named TVI: Tactical Vehicle Intervention.
Assistant Fleet Operations Manager Mark Crawford and other Fleet Operations Unit members were given the task of not only engineering the 20 TVI vehicles, but building the bad guy’s cars to be used in training which they accomplished by attaching heavy steel panels to the rear quarter panels of retired CVPIs. To research PIT bumpers, Moats and several other Fleet Operations members traveled to the Kansas Highway Patrol’s training facility in Salina, KS, to investigate their bumpers and how to install them. They learned the KHP uses Thunder Struck Bumpers, manufactured in Abilene, KS.
Thunder Struck celebrated their tenth anniversary this year and their bumpers are proudly made in the USA. They are currently the only company in the United States which manufactures bumpers using square tubing which is stronger than the round tubes used by some of their competitors. In addition, their TVI units are fully welded and their Charger and PI Utility bumpers come standard with lower skid plates for extra protection and feature heavy mesh grill guards. For more information, contact them at www.thunderstruckbumpers.com.
Sergeant James Post appreciates your comments and suggestions for future articles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.