High-speed police chases like those in Kansas City this week make for dangerous moments and captivating TV.
The chases — police prefer to describe them as pursuits — are driven not just by horsepower, although that matters, but by rules of law and the laws of physics.
Even as experts note that no two rubber-burning run-downs play out quite the same way, some patterns pop up time and again.
Amateurs hoping police will eat their dust nearly always end up in handcuffs or on a gurney. Cop cars come with bigger alternators, more robust suspension systems, larger radiators and sturdier brakes that give them an edge. The pursuers work as a team, like hounds after a fox. Police man the wheel better trained to handle the hopped-up kinetics of pedal-to-the-floor driving that civilians only think they grasp from Hollywood.
In the end, particularly when the police have a helicopter tracking from above, the runner will do him- or herself in. He or she may run out of gas, blow a tire while skipping over a curb or get the vehicle stuck on somebody’s lawn.
As hard as it might be to imagine criminals taking counsel from Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, experts suggest she got it right in a Thursday news release:
“You will not get away.”
Two pursuits this week zig-zagged through the Kansas City area, pulling television viewers away from morning fluff and interrupting their midday soap operas.
On Tuesday, police tailed a driver who often topped 100 mph starting near 31st Street and Broadway Boulevard, winding through Johnson County and back into Missouri for 90 minutes until cops ruptured the pickup truck’s tires in south Kansas City. Another started before dawn in Blue Springs on Thursday and ended with police wrestling their suspect from a car shortly after rush hour in Independence.
People who train police on the nuances of four-wheeled pursuit say every instant along a high-speed journey is fraught with legal and policy implications. Rules on when to speed after a suspect vary between police agencies. Those standards are steeped in ongoing debates about whether to let an apparent crime pass and avoid the hazards of zipping through traffic, or to capture a potentially dangerous person on the run.
Broadly speaking, the law says that when you flee, the cops can chase you.
One night in 2001 in Georgia, 19-year-old Victor Harris was driving with a suspended license and refused to pull over for police who spotted him speeding. The pursuit that followed ended when a police cruiser rammed his Cadillac. The car flipped. Harris’ resulting injuries left him a quadriplegic. He sued the sheriff’s deputy driving the car that hit his.
In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Harris’ suit, finding that law enforcement can take even potentially deadly action to catch a car when they think the driver’s behavior poses a serious threat to bystanders.
Even with that legal go-ahead, experts say liability worries accompany every tick of the odometer with a constant consideration of whether the pursuit is worth its risks.
“You have to think about the likelihood this guy is fleeing just because the license plate expired, or because he’s just killed his wife and the body’s in the trunk,” said Sgt. Michael McCarthy of the Michigan State Police Precision Driving Unit — an operation that trains law enforcement from across the country.
“At the same time, you’re calculating whether the guy is a bigger danger to the motoring public if you let him speed off or if you’re in pursuit,” he said.
McCarthy said police often look to pull off a PIT maneuver — pursuit intervention technique, or precision immobilization technique. It involves steering the cruiser in pursuit into the rear fender of a car. Done correctly, it causes a spin-out that also kills the vehicle’s engine.
But don’t try this at home. Even the Missouri Highway Patrol prohibits its troopers from trying the trick unless the situation warrants deadly force.
At least as key as driving skills, experts said, is hailing reinforcements. Let dispatch know you’re in pursuit. Get a supervisor involved — to send other cars for help and to make the call on whether to continue or let the person go.
Police from most jurisdictions have the authority to pursue over city, county and even state lines — but policies on that differ from one department to the next.
Cops often limit the number of cars they’ll involve in a pursuit. The Missouri Highway Patrol, for instance, caps it at three cars in all but the most extreme cases because every speeding vehicle increases the danger.
“You’re thinking about the risk to the general public, and you want to keep that risk in mind all the time,” said Sgt. Joey Day, an instructor at the Missouri State Highway Patrol Law Enforcement Academy in Jefferson City.
A Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center handout on pursuit driving suggests officers trail relatively closely in the first minute or two of a pursuit — “to apply psychological pressure on the suspect, who may feel they have no chance of escape and will pull over” — leaving just two seconds in traveling time between the fleeing vehicle and a cop car. After two minutes, it suggests doubling that distance.
“Remember, a pursuit is not a race,” the handout states. “You do not have to show the fleeing driver how well you drive. All you need to do is keep them in sight.”
It also coaches pursuers to stay slightly to the left of the car they’re behind to gain the same view ahead as the suspect, to let oncoming traffic better see the emergency lights, and to have a better chance of escaping if the runaway vehicle crashes.
Those in pursuit also avoid passing the vehicle for fear they’ll be rammed or be more vulnerable to gunfire.
“It’s always easier to fight something in front of you than behind you,” said McCarthy of the Michigan State Police. “If he starts shooting at us, I want to be behind him where he has to turn around while he’s driving.”
To a great extent, law enforcement specialists said they want to outlast the person they’re pursing. Road blocks have begun to lose favor because they tend to invite a crash. Instead, cops prefer to lay down spike strips that plant needles in a tire and slowly flatten them. That’s better than a quick tire blow-out that would cause a crash.
Meanwhile, at least in urban areas such as Kansas City, helicopters join the hunt. Once they’ve spotted a vehicle — the pilot with eyes on the target, a second person using GPS and maybe thermal imaging to call out locations to officers below — escape becomes nearly impossible. That tracking also allows cars at ground level to back off, which tends to cause the person fleeing to slow down.
“Then we can just back off and stay in the area,” said Lt. K.L. Woods of the Kansas Highway Patrol. “He’s going to run out of gas, or going to blow a tire. Once the person starts running, he continues to drive recklessly and gets himself in trouble.”