Helicopters and Police Pursuits
This post just happens to be on 9-11-08, GOD BLESS AMERICA!
In many ways the police pursuit is the ultimate manifestation of good vs. evil, or good guys vs. bad guys. Police pursuits are glorified in movies, TV series, and police reality shows. Almost every American has been put into the drivers seat of real police pursuits thanks to dash cams and reality police shows like COPS.
Police pursuits are much more than a few moments of excitement on the evening news however. They are dangerous procedures undertaken by law enforcement officers attempting to apprehend individuals suspected of criminal activity, who have decided not to be arrested.
The problem is that most police pursuits take place on the same highways, roads, and streets, that your family, my family, and all other innocent citizens travel on each and every day. Unfortunately, completely innocent bystanders are killed by vehicles driven by both suspects and officers when pursuits turn bad. The police pursuit can be just as dangerous for the officer initiating the pursuit. Traffic accidents claim the lives of good police officers every year, and a percentage of these unfortunate accidents occur during police pursuits.
Just this week we arrived overhead of a traffic pursuit of a stolen vehicle, initiated by San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputies out of the Lemon Grove Station. The night time pursuit lasted about 14 minutes and passed through the cities and communities of Lemon Grove, Chula Vista and Spring Valley. It ended with the pregnant female driver crashing the vehicle and attempting to flee on foot. This suspect intentionally drove the wrong way up freeway off ramps, and the wrong way on the freeway, several times in an attempt to lose the pursuing black & white patrol cars. During one of these maneuvers a Sheriff’s patrol vehicle and a CHP patrol vehicle collided causing major damage to both vehicles, and sending one deputy and two CHP Officers to the hospital. Luckily there were no life threatening injuries.
There are many controversial aspects to police pursuits. Should police chase only suspects wanted for known violent felony crimes? What about the suspect who is wanted for murder in another state, but the officer has no idea who he is or why he is running? It is also a fact that some drivers will attempt to evade law enforcement for minor reasons, such as a suspended drivers license. Almost every police agency has policies in place that require both the officer in the pursuit, as well as supervisors monitoring the pursuit, to take the safety of the public into consideration, when deciding whether to initiate or continue a police pursuit. Most agencies require their patrol sergeants and/or patrol lieutenants to immediately cancel a pursuit when the danger to the public from the pursuit, is greater than the danger to the public if the suspect is not taken into custody.
With all of that said the traffic pursuit, followed closely by the foot pursuit, is probably the most exciting, adrenaline pumping activity an officer will ever be involved in, (shootouts notwithstanding.) On one hand no officer wants a pursuit to occur, and innocent people endangered. On the other hand, we know that they are in fact going to occur, and most officers on the ground or in the air desire strongly to be in a position to assist his fellow officer, and assist taking the perpetrator into custody.
One thing is for sure, and that is that police helicopters have the ability to enhance the safety of a police pursuit for both the officers and the general public.
There is a thought process in police circles that if the police are no longer chasing the suspect, then at some point the danger to the public will be reduced as the suspect realizes he is no longer being pursued. Either the suspect’s driving returns to a more normal state (this does not occur immediately), or he/she goes into hiding mode, where the car is dumped and the suspect flees on foot, unseen by the police who have discontinued the pursuit.
This is where the police helicopter is most valuable in the police pursuit. It allows for ground officers to back off, and slow down, while the helicopter keeps track of the suspect vehicle and suspect. The suspect vehicle has to end up somewhere, and when it does eventually come to a stop there is usually an overabundant number of law enforcement officers, some with police canines, ready to set up a perimeter and take the suspect into custody.
It goes without saying that the arrest rate for suspects involved in police pursuits goes up dramatically once the airship is overhead. As I write this I cannot think of a single pursuit I have been involved in with the helicopter, where the suspect escaped after we were directly overhead of the pursuit. There were many that escaped capture before we arrived, but not one that I can recall that got away after we were overhead, (I am only speaking of my personal experience.) I can think of several that would never have been arrested if we were not overhead. Two of these occurred on the same day, last fall. To read an account of these two pursuits visit Police Helicopter Calls for service, San Diego Sheriff.