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Crime dramas on television aren’t complete without a high-speed chase and a suspect being tossed in the back of a police cruiser. Oh, if it were just that easy! On the silver screen, there are no real victims when a suspect is fleeing from police going down the highway at 90 miles an hour. In real-time, there are people in the other vehicles and those people have friends and family who would be lost without them.
In most high-speed chase situations, property damage is extensive for both the police as well as the public. Property can be repaired or replaced, human lives cannot. PIT maneuvers have been used for decades as an effective tool for ending high-speed chases. They do have risks, however, and it’s those risks that many people use to debate whether or not the PIT maneuvers are worth using.
What Is a “PIT” Maneuver?
PIT, or pursuit immobilization techniques, maneuvers are used to disable vehicles that are engaging in a high speed chase with law enforcement officers. PIT maneuvers were first used by the CHP (California Highway Patrol). In West Virginia, an academy was opened that taught advanced driving techniques and police pursuit techniques to police officers across the United States.
While many debate the safety of PIT maneuvers and protest their use due to the risks involved, most people would have to agree that there are times when the use of a PIT maneuver has saved many lives. The key is knowing when to use the maneuver and when to let the scenario run its course. Weighing the risks and acting for the greater good is essential.
Why Are They Used?
PIT maneuvers are used to stop a suspect vehicle from continuing to flee law enforcement. They are also used if law enforcement has reason to believe that a suspect has an intended target or is intent on doing harm to as many people as possible. Police officers need to evaluate each specific instance of a fleeing vehicle on their own merit.
A fleeing driver in a suspect vehicle may not be a threat to anyone other than themselves. In this situation, a police officer may choose not to use a PIT maneuver simply because it would expand the risks to include the safety of the officers who are in pursuit.
Are They Effective?
In situations where public safety is in jeopardy and loss of life is imminent, PIT maneuvers can be extremely effective. Using a police car to hit or bump into the suspect vehicle can be dangerous at any speed. It isn’t the only maneuver that can be used, however.
Stop sticks are commonly used to slow vehicles down by deflating the tires. This may not stop the fleeing vehicle, but it will make it easier for the police to contain the situation and minimize the risk of property damage and personal injury.
Proper training is a must when a PIT maneuver is considered an option. A poorly trained police officer will not be effective in a PIT vehicle. PIT maneuvers require precision movements and pinpoint accuracy when using one vehicle against another.
The bad thing about this is that with funding being cut and staffing shortages, there is little time for sufficient training when it comes to aggressive driving and PIT maneuver usage. What little training officers receive, they will get at their state’s law enforcement academy. Most have no real idea what their police vehicle is capable of until it comes time to use it.
Skill and Agility
Many police officers have excellent driving skills from participating in recreational activities that involve all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles, or demolition derbies. Those that have the skills involved with many of these activities understand the use of kinetic energy and are able to use a car’s steering wheel and brakes to their fullest advantage. For many PIT maneuver tactics, there is no set-in-stone manual to follow. Police officers must use their natural skills and abilities to react instinctively to whatever situation they find themselves in.
PIT maneuvers work best when they are used at speeds less than 30 to 40 miles per hour. At higher speeds, the risk of injury or death to police officers and the public at large dramatically increases. PIT maneuvers used at slower speeds are much more effective and are more likely to allow police officers to apprehend the suspect and impound their vehicle. Research performed at the University of South Carolina proves that varying degrees of speed will produce drastically different results. When speed is a factor, officers will more than likely err on the side of caution. Knowing how and, most importantly, when to use a PIT maneuver is essential to the safety of all involved.
Electronic Stability Control and Its Effects on PIT Maneuvers
Most vehicles manufactured since around 2012 are manufactured with electronic stability control. This type of technology reduces the driver’s ability to control a vehicle during a high speed chase. It also increases the risk of secondary impacts when the target vehicle has electronic stability control. It was also proven that secondary impacts were much more severe when speeds exceeded 45 miles per hour.
Anytime the PIT maneuver is used and a fatality occurs, people begin to talk about excessive or deadly force. In one case, an Arkansas State Police trooper initiated a high speed chase when a young man failed to stop at an intersection. According to the Washington Post, the pick up truck began to swerve into the wrong lane, dodging cars and endangering others.
Unbeknownst to the trooper, the man in the fleeing vehicle was mentally disabled. He died as a result of the PIT maneuver that was performed by the trooper while both vehicles were traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour. Was the PIT maneuver needed? It’s hard to judge due to the circumstances.
Indifferent to the Risks, Indifferent to the Lives of Others
One thing that the public at large must remember is that suspects who flee from police in a vehicle are indifferent to the risks they are taking. They are also indifferent to the lives of others. This indifference makes them extremely dangerous when they are behind the wheel of a one or two-ton weapon of destruction.
As difficult as it is for police officers, they must make a split-second decision on what method to use in order to diffuse the situation at hand. One mistake can kill or injure officers and citizens. By the same token, an effectively executed PIT maneuver can restore public safety and save several lives.
Weighing the Odds
When it comes to using a PIT maneuver, the odds of potential must be weighed. In most cases, that task must be accomplished in a matter of seconds. This is why most law enforcement officers will defer the decision to a supervisor or someone higher up in the chain of command that can evaluate all factors. A supervisor is normally apart from the action and has access to technology that allows them to see areas where the high speed pursuit is headed. They are able to mitigate the risk and determine whether or not a PIT maneuver is needed.
Making the Choice
Anytime a police officer is forced into a decision that may involve personal injury or death, their stress levels are high and they must maintain pinpoint focus on the task at hand. Public safety and concern for their fellow officers are top priorities. Even supervisors who have many years of experience will sometimes hesitate before making the call to initiate a PIT maneuver during any type of police pursuit.
One thing that works in their favor is knowing and trusting the officers they have in their department. They can identify an officer with exceptional driving skills to perform the maneuver on the target vehicle. Judging the right time and location to execute the maneuver may be left up to the officer. When a supervisor has access to the personal information they need about the suspect and trust in the officers he commands, he or she is able to make a sound decision and feel confident that it was the right one.
While the debate about PIT maneuvers will continue, studies from across the country and reports from various states like Georgia and New York will continue to provide valuable information on how the use of PIT maneuvers can be improved. Law enforcement officers across the United States will continue to utilize these valuable tools to ensure public safety and prevent suspects from avoiding justice.