California's current vehicle code

Policy, Training, Supervision, and Accountability
by Donald Van Blaricom
Ret. Bellevue, Washington State Police Chief

"The absence of accountability in any process for controlling human behavior is a systemic deficiency that clearly demonstrates to all concerned that policy, training, and supervision are really meaningless when there are no consequences for ignoring them."

The reader may agree that a police vehicular pursuit policy is necessary, and in fact, every law enforcement agency seems to have one.  There are, however, three types of such policies: (1) discretionary, (2) restrictive, or (3) discouraging. A discretionary policy is really no policy at all and leaves decision-making to the ad hoc judgment of whoever happens to be engaged in the pursuit.  The restrictive model incorporates the principle of balancing need against risk, as described by the IACP sample vehicular pursuit policy previously cited herein.  Finally, the discouraging policy essentially prohibits all pursuits and, although in limited use, is not generally favored, as there will always be some circumstances wherein a calculated risk must be taken to pursue for the greater necessity of apprehending an extremely dangerous criminal.

Policy, however, is only the first component of controlling police vehicular pursuits and will not be solely effective.  By example, all law enforcement agencies have deadly force policies, but they are critically reinforced by the other three essential components of training, supervision, and accountability. Without training in what the policy means and how it is to be fulfilled in actual practice, there will be no compliance.  It will simply be a well-meaning document that is neatly catalogued in the General Orders Manual, where it will otherwise only serve to establish civil liability in the aftermath of an uncontrolled pursuit crash. ("This is exactly what happens in California," comment by Candy Priano.)

Training is more than just teaching officers how to drive an emergency vehicle in pursuit and, as with teaching officers how to shoot, pursuit training must encompass equal or greater emphasis on when not to do so as well.  Supervision becomes an active responsibility as soon as a pursuit begins and must be exercised quickly because 50% of all pursuit crashes will occur within the first two minutes (United States Department of Justice Office, 1998), but 70% of pursued drivers can be expected to slow their evasive driving within two blocks on urban streets, if the pursuit is terminated (Alpert, 1996).

Supervision is especially important to provide an objective balance of need versus risk from the perspective of a senior officer not directly involved in the pursuit itself.  The adrenaline dump associated with high-risk exposure is well known to cause tunnel vision, and the pursuing officer can become so focused on "catching the suspect" as to exclude adequate consideration of the inherent dangers to oneself or others (Alpert, 1996).  Perhaps the most important and most frequently missing component of the four criteria for control of police vehicular pursuits is the accountability factor, and this is difficult to understand. 

The absence of accountability in any process for controlling human behavior is a systemic deficiency that clearly demonstrates to all concerned that policy, training, and supervision are really meaningless when there are no consequences for ignoring them.  If for instance, shooters were not held accountable for compliance with deadly force policies, does anyone doubt that we would have many more bad shootings?  The fact is that police vehicular pursuits seriously injure and kill far more innocent third parties than are ever going to be placed at the risk of a police shooting.  Why is that permitted?  Officers are strictly prohibited from firing into a crowd, but they are routinely given the latitude to pursue a stolen car through urban streets against traffic control devices until a collision terminates the chase.  This has happened over and over again throughout the United States and will continue to occur until chief policymakers assert effective administrative control over when and how vehicular pursuits are to be conducted.  Can there be any question that this is a critical public safety issue demanding attention?

 

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