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Helicopters, stop sticks, GPS trackers: How technology and tactics behind police chases are evolving

 A national push for more restrictive chase policies has led some departments to rethink their own strategies and tactics.
Collage by Rachel Behrndt
Image courtesy of AP
A national push for more restrictive chase policies has led some departments to rethink their own strategies and tactics.

North Richland Hills Police Chief Mike Young can remember when chases ended only with a suspect in cuffs or in a wreck. A 39-year law enforcement veteran, his career in the department began with very different expectations for pursuits.

“I was almost immediately put into traffic,” he said. “They put a 22-year-old kid in a 1986 police pursuit Mustang. I do question the thought process on that, but I did survive.”

As Young moved up the department ladder, what was and wasn’t acceptable began to change. Community expectations shifted, he said, as did department priorities.

“As you progress forward, you have things that happen, tragedies that happen, and it affects your community,” he said. “And hence, it affects your policies of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.”

North Richland Hills officers no longer chase until the wheels fall off. Instead, their policy — released online — outlines clear circumstances for when an officer should call off a chase. In 2023, department staff called off 19 of 39 total pursuits. In 17 of the aborted pursuits, the pursuing officer, rather than a supervisor, was the one to make the call.

“The officer saw it, recognized it was a problem and said, ‘OK, I’m gonna terminate this pursuit, the risk versus what the crime was, it just doesn’t match,’” Young said.

Young’s department isn’t alone in rethinking its pursuit policy. Across the state and nation, police agencies are making changes. In Houston, for example, the department tightened its policy to prohibit chases for nonviolent misdemeanor investigations, after a Houston Chronicle investigation showed the toll chases were taking on the community.

When a law enforcement agency wants to make changes to its policy, it has multiple factors to consider. A comprehensive report on vehicle pursuits published last year by the Police Executive Research Forum, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, outlines the pros and cons of individual tools and tactics often used in pursuits. Its 65 recommendations are designed to help departments make the most effective — and safe — policy decisions possible.

Chuck Wexler, executive director for the research forum, told KERA in a July 2023 interview he classifies police car chases as a use of force with a high risk for the community, and pursuit policies should be crafted with that in mind.

“Does the risk associated with a pursuit justify engaging in an activity that could have adverse impact either on the police officer who’s doing the chasing, the person who’s being chased … or a third party who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?” Wexler said.

Different tactics for different communities

Police chases involve more than just screeching tires and flashing lights and sirens.

Common tools include tire deflation devices such as stop sticks or spike strips, which officers can suddenly throw into a suspect vehicle’s path or place in front of a driver’s vehicle to stop a suspect from ever driving off. Young’s department policy allows officers to use stop sticks. Other departments, including Dallas, Grand Prairie and Grapevine, also use the tools.

They can be effective to catch someone who might otherwise outrun an officer, Young said, but they don’t come without risks. Trying to lay out one of these devices can be dangerous for the officer and the driver, and the report recommends using that strategy sparingly.

“I’ve seen videos of officers that have been completely run over by a suspect, the suspect knows what they’re doing and instead of running over the stop sticks, they run over the police officer,” Young said. “So we have a lot of training that we do on that because we don’t we don’t want that to happen to one of our officers.”

The potential for harm to an officer deterred White Settlement from adding stop sticks to its pursuit repertoire. Instead, White Settlement Police Chief Christopher Cook said, his officers are piloting the use of a technology called StarChase.

Mounted to the front of police vehicles, StarChase allows officers to shoot GPS locators onto the back of a suspect’s fleeing vehicle. Officers can then fall back, watch the GPS coordinates of the vehicle and get in position to apprehend the suspect once they’ve pulled over.

The report recommends agencies prioritizing these kinds of remote tracking technologies in their chase policies, citing data that shows suspects are more likely to slow down to a safe speed when they think they’re no longer being pursued.

“Tracking devices can also work for suspects who know the pursuit policies and that the officers cannot pursue them,” the report said. “A restrictive pursuit policy does not prevent the officer from tracking the vehicle and apprehending the suspect at a later time.”

Cook stressed that StarChase isn’t a replacement for all chases. While it can be very effective for stolen vehicles, for example, he said he doesn’t want to take away his officers’ discretion.

“A good rule of thumb is if we had an impaired driver and they were all over the road, even though we might tag that vehicle, we’re going to stay with it because we’re going to want to alert other motorists that, ‘Hey, this suspect is, from inside lane to outside lane, weaving real bad. They’re drunk or impaired,’” he said.

Using helicopters or other aircraft is another alternative to road pursuits. Having law enforcement in the air can help communicate a vehicle’s location, the suspect’s driving behavior, whether the driver is armed, whether there are passengers and other key information.

“With this information, officers on the ground can remain in the area but out of the suspect’s view and respond if the suspect stops and gets out of the vehicle,” the report said. “They can also assist with traffic control or take other measures to enhance public safety.”

The Dallas Police Department’s pursuit policy allows for the use of helicopters for similar purposes. Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said air support has been an incredibly helpful tool in chases, which are mostly limited to pursuing suspects of violent felonies.

“We are working with vendors to see what state-of-the-art technology is out there to help assist us,” Garcia said, “not only in apprehending individuals that meet the criteria of our pursuits — and we have officers in that pursuit to make it safer — but to also assist us in apprehending criminals when their actions don’t necessarily meet the criteria.”

The Fort Worth Police Department’s tactics remain shrouded in mystery. While the department uses both stop sticks and helicopters, the policysection governing when and how they can be used is confidential. A lawsuit against the attorney general to keep those sections private is ongoing. The city is facing a lawsuit from the family of a man who was killed last year while police chased another vehicle.

Limiting chaseable offenses

What constitutes a chaseable offense varies from department to department. The Plano Police Department policy, for example, prohibits officers from chasing someone for a traffic offense or Class C misdemeanor, unless they’re suspected of driving while intoxicated. The Denton Police Department policy, in contrast, allows officers to chase anyone attempting to evade arrest or detention, while considering various aggravating factors.

The report from the Police Executive Research Forum and other agencies recommends departments only allow chases when the suspect has committed a violent crime and poses an imminent threat to commit another violent crime.

“What constitutes a violent crime should also be clearly defined in policy. In some cases, an agency will enumerate exactly which crimes (or statutes) provide the basis for a vehicle pursuit, while other agencies will use a more general definition of a violent crime,” the report states.

Dallas is one of several North Texas departments whose policy limits most chases to violent offenses. Under policy, officers can pursue when they have “probable cause to believe that a felony involving the use or threat of physical force or violence has been, or is about to be, committed.”

Not everyone believes limiting chases based on specific offense types is the right move.

Col. Matthew Packard is the general chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police’ division of state and provincial police. A longtime member of the Colorado State Patrol, Packard has experience both initiating and supervising pursuits. Now, as a colonel, he looks at trends within his organization and nationally.

Packard agrees mitigating risks in pursuits starts with solid policy development. But he said it’s also possible for chase policies to be too restrictive. For example, although impaired driving might be a low-level traffic violation, he said there might be an obvious scenario where that driver needs to be stopped. A policy that restricts stops to only violent felonies wouldn’t allow an officer that discretion.

“There can be a lean sometimes to have developed policy that is so descriptive in an attempt to cover every possible situation. And I would tell you, I’m of the opinion that that is a mistake,” he told KERA last year.

Packard instead advocates for limiting the number of instant decisions officers have to make during a chase. Packard said he has yet to find the perfect pursuit policy. But he said he knows from experience there are situations where a pursuit is simply the right and just thing to do.

“One of the biggest challenges that I’ve had conversations with my counterparts around the country is we keep adding pages or paragraphs to these policies and this training and these guidelines,” he said, “And we’re expecting police officers to make decisions while they’re driving a police car at sometimes, you know, 50, 60, 100 miles an hour and requiring them to go through flowcharts to make a decision in split seconds. And all that does is add time and risk.”

Copyright 2024 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Toluwani Osibamowo
Emily Wolf | Fort Worth Report