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Examining risks versus rewards of tire deflation devices

We continue to evolve our efforts in ballistic vests, vehicles, uniforms, and the like, so it’s time we address a new generation of TDDs

The first tragic event I remember with tire deflation devices (TDD) was on September 11, 2005. Arkansas State Trooper Mark Carthron successfully deployed the devices during a vehicle pursuit, but when he went to retrieve them from the roadway he was struck by another trooper in the pursuit. While it was the first event that I knew about, there had been ten deaths previous to Trooper Carthron, dating back to 1996.

These tragedies and others were on my mind when I was able to find funding to deploy these units at my own agency. I remember telling an instructor that I had tasked with the implementation of the program, “We must train, train and train some more.”

He did a fine job training hundreds of officers, and I knew they had been given all the tools and training to succeed, but a little voice in my head had me concerned.

Were the officers who had previously died not been trained to a high degree? Certainly they had been, but tragedy still struck them. The last thing I wanted to do was to advocate a technology that had the potential to hurt or even kill officers.

What About Success?
There is no argument that tire devices are a valuable tool. They are by far the most popular tool to combat vehicle pursuits, and thousands of agencies have them. My research years ago clearly showed that agencies that placed them in every car could affect as many as 20 percent of their pursuits.

That meant that the speed of 20 percent of the pursuits would be significantly reduced. This, I predicted, would either stop those pursuits or slow them to a manageable speed that would significantly reduce the associated dangers.

Slower vehicles are safer vehicles and that, I figured, was a good thing.

Fears Came True
I don’t think my agency could have rolled these devices out any better. We contacted many agencies and got great advice. Every officer got excellent instruction — they did practical exercises — and we reinforced safety at all costs.

I paid close attention to the program. While the first deployment was successful, it could have cost us greatly. The officer stood on the roadway and deployed the tire deflation devices within feet of the suspect car. He was not concealed or protected by anything, and in my mind he was not struck or killed simply because the suspect decided to drive over the devices instead of over the officer.

It has been years since those events, and we continue to emphasize safety. Many officers and departments have made the decision to not use what we at one time believed would be a game changer for vehicle pursuits. I can’t blame their decision, and today I question the need.

A Deadly Tool
Twenty-seven officers have given their lives using these devices. “It makes the public as a whole safer” is how I justified the inherent danger of deploying them.

I used to say, “If only the training was better, these deaths and injuries wouldn’t happen,” but today I’m questioning all of that. It hasn’t been an easy transition, and it has taken some time to get here.

I don’t change my mind very easily.

Risk Versus Reward
Everything we do in law enforcement should be weighed by the risks taken versus the rewards gained. This is why it makes no sense to chase cars for minor offenses, and it’s also why we won’t hesitate to run into a school alone to save kids from an active shooter.

We should never take risks without reason, and the reason must be a big reward. It’s the same reason that agencies like the Dallas Police Department have discontinued using tire deflation devices. Sergeant Keith Wenzel made the proposal two years ago to stop using the devices.

“Tire deflation devices place the officer in a position where the suspect has the control to decide if the officer will ever go home again. The rewards simply do not outweigh those type of risks,” Wenzel said.

Training with tire deflation devices has been woefully inadequate for some time. The typical story I hear is they are distributed after a short video is shown, and that’s about it.

Maybe a year or more goes by before they’re deployed. If there ever was any muscle memory to do this, it was lost long before that moment.

Technology and Alternatives
We continue to evolve our efforts in ballistic vests, vehicles, uniforms, and the like, so it’s time we address a new generation of tire deflation devices.

This technology has been stagnant for decades. While there have been some attempts to develop similar devices that don’t require an officer standing on the side the road, those attempts have either been prohibitive due to costs or simply not embraced by the profession.

By advocating that our profession stop using these devices, I would remove one of the only tools that most agencies have to manage vehicle pursuits. We must pursue other options, and those may include some that aren’t as popular, such as pursuit intervention techniques (PIT). If you think it’s a good idea to let your officers stand by the roadway and throw an object at a speeding criminal, then maybe it’s time to look at a much safer and proven technique that can actually stop pursuits, such as the PIT.

Maybe you haven’t come to the same conclusion I have, and that is OK. It took me a long time to get here, and I’m just one opinion that no one has to agree with. If you want to keep using these devices, then do all you can to do it safely.

An officer is much more likely to deploy tire deflation devices than shoot their firearm, so we should train on those devices just as much as our weapon. That training should involve a hands-on approach as well as decision-making skills.

Maybe you manufacture these devices and I have really upset you. Don’t be upset — but do not rest on your laurels. Law enforcement deserves more than a string and nails. Business is about change, adaptation and the marketplace. The marketplace demands a safer product, and just like we did with ballistic vests in the 1970s, we will be patient and we will help — but we need your efforts.

I’d love to read your comments and suggestions. Has your training been adequate, and do you think the risks of TDDs are worth it? Let’s have a discussion in the comment section below, and maybe we all can contribute to a safer profession.

Officer Safety issues are of paramount importance to us. Armed with the knowledge that vehicles have killed officers in higher numbers than have firearms in recent few years, we have brought on a columnist who focuses on law enforcement driver training and safer pursuits.