By Thomas Frank, USA TODAY
Although police chases have been recognized as dangerous for nearly half a century, both training and technology remain inadequate, experts say.
The average police trainee received 72 hours of weapons training compared to 40 hours of driving training, only a portion of which covered chases, according to a 2006 Justice Department study of police training academies.
A 2007 survey of Florida Highway Patrol sergeants showed that 80% thought that patrol officers “did not have adequate training in the area of pursuit driving.” Highway Patrol spokesman Lieut. Ryan Martina did not respond to repeated inquires about how the patrol responded to the poll.
“We’re not taking it seriously enough because we think that one day of training that an officer may have gotten in their academy is going to take effect 10 years later when a pursuit begins,” said Maj. Travis Yates, the Tulsa expert on police chases. “Most officers will never fire their firearms ever, but we train one to four times a year” on using guns.
Chases have been left behind in the modernization of police equipment that is now moving toward outfitting officers with body cameras. President Obama in December proposed $75 million in federal funds to buy 50,000 body cameras in the effort to “build and sustain trust” between police and communities.
Police use of Tasers, body armor, cameras and computers in patrol cars has soared, Justice Department reports show. In 2007, 90% of police worked for a department that used portable computers. In 1990, that figure was 30%.
Yet the principal “technology” for chases are tire spikes — two decades old and seldom used because police must know where a fleeing car is heading so they can pull a strip of spikes across a road. Police in Minnesota used spikes in only 3% of the nearly 1,000 chases in the state in 2014, state records show.
A Justice Department overview notes that spikes “can put both the officers and other motorists in danger.” Houston police officer Richard Martin was killed May 18 when a fleeing driver swerved and hit him as he was laying spikes.
“There’s been a lot of advances in police technology in the last 15 years. The pursuit-termination devices we envisioned haven’t kept up with those advances,” said Farrow, the California Highway Patrol commissioner.
A federal effort to develop advanced systems has fallen well short of the hype of a 1996 Justice Department bulletin headline, “High-Speed Pursuit: New Technologies Around the Corner.” Federal justice and transportation officials began studying improvements to pursuit safety after a controversial 1968 study by Physicians for Automotive Safety said that 70% of police chases result in crashes.
Devices that would shut off the engines of moving cars by transmitting microwaves are not commercially available a decade after the Justice Department funded their development. “It’s very frustrating that we haven’t gotten to that next stage,” said Bill Miera, owner of Fiore Industries of New Mexico, which tried to build the devices with the help of a $300,000 federal grant but ran short of money.
A device that shoots a small, adhesive GPS tag onto a car exterior was introduced for police in 2010, but is used by only 20 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments. Attaching a GPS tag lets police stop their chase — which prompts fleeing drivers to slow down — and follow the car by computer until it stops, where they can make an arrest.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety has embedded the systems in seven cars and uses them every time an officer can get within 30 feet of a fleeing vehicle, Capt. Chris Hemmen said. After tagging a car, police shadow it from a couple of blocks away. “As soon as they stop, we’re able to pounce,” Hemmen said.
Houston Police considered the devices after Martin’s death but declined because officers still have to pursue a car and get close enough to fire the remote-controlled GPS tag from a launcher mounted behind the grill of a police car, department spokeswoman Jodi Silva said.
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The $5,000 purchase cost also deters departments, which often spend capital funds and federal grants on routine items such as car tires and hiring more officers, said Trevor Fischbach, president of StarChase LLC, the manufacturer, which got a $380,000 federal grant.
“We’re in the 21st Century,” Fischbach said. “We should be using 21st-century tools that are available.”
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