IACP 2013: New report suggests way to mitigate risks of high-speed pursuits

Before the session was canceled, Dr. Geoff Alpert was scheduled to reveal findings of a research report he wrote in collaboration with NIJ and StarChase — here's what you missed

On the first day of IACP 2013, I’d been looking forward to a Saturday morning seminar session at which a panel of distinguished speakers was to discuss police pursuit policy and officer safety.

Experts were scheduled to share their newest findings on factors leading to law enforcement vehicle crashes and injuries, as well as potential “solutions to increase safety without sacrificing performance,” said the show guide.

Unfortunately, that session was cancelled due to the government shutdown. Happily, however, I was able to obtain some of the materials that would have been presented by one of the speakers — Dr. Geoff Alpert, a well-recognized expert who has been involved in pursuit research for more than 20 years. Dr. Alpert was prepared to reveal findings of a research report he recently authored in collaboration with the National Institute of Justice and StarChase.

A Pursuit Without a Chase
For the uninitiated, StarChase has created an alternative to the no-pursuit policies that seriously compromise law enforcement’s ability to apprehend dangerous suspects. Essentially, it’s a nose-mounted (behind the grille) projectile launcher that fires a small GPS tracking device onto the tail end of a suspect vehicle.

The company’s solutions help agencies and officers mitigate some of the dangers — and subsequent liabilities — inherent to high-speed pursuits. Here’s a very brief overview, some of which I pilfered from the company’s website.

The system is comprised of three basic parts: the launcher, the GPS module, and the computer desktop user interface.

The compressed-air launcher, which is mounted behind the grille of a police cruiser, uses a laser to target the fleeing vehicle and discharge a projectile containing the GPS-locator module. That projectile adheres to the suspect vehicle and transmits coordinates back to dispatch. The dispatcher then views the location and movements of the tagged vehicle in near real-time on a digital roadmap via a secure Internet connection.

My friends at StarChase furnished me with a draft copy of Dr. Alpert’s technical report summarizing some early test results of the company’s pursuit mitigation technology conducted by Arizona Department of Public Safety.

For his report, Dr. Alpert spoke with — and did ride-alongs with — a number of officers from Arizona DPS who have deployed the StarChase GPS projectile in real-world incidents during the testing and evaluation process. He also examined T&E case studies from a couple of other agencies in the United States.

From his interviews and evaluations, Dr. Alpert concluded that “StarChase has the ability to track fleeing suspects, and apprehend them without a dangerous pursuit. The anecdotal information provided by officers who have used the device is impressive and shows how well the technology performs in the field.”

Dr. Alpert noted that one of the major concerns of a pursuit is the behavior of the fleeing suspect who drives dangerously.

“Up until now, the only information we have had concerning the actions of the fleeing driver is an estimate of the pursuing police officer or the fleeing suspect,” Dr. Alpert wrote. “StarChase sends back real-time information on the speed, direction and location of the target vehicle to the computer that maintains communication with StarChase. While recorded data on fleeing suspects are available on a limited number of StarChase applications, the few successful tags show interesting and important data.”

Data from tags deployed by the Arizona Department of Public Safety and a couple of other agencies testing the technology serve as case studies that give details about the behavior of the fleeing suspect and the success of StarChase, according to Dr. Alpert’s draft analysis.

“In each case, no chase was conducted, there were no crashes, no property damage, and no injuries. In each case, the cars were recovered and a total of nine arrests were made. While the specific distance it took for the vehicles to slow down to 10 miles over the speed limit (which is estimated to approximate normal driving conditions), is unknown, the time is recorded. In the eight cases, the time varied from 50 seconds to 15 minutes, which is consistent with estimates from officers and suspects,” Dr. Alpert stated.

On average, a tagged suspect slowed to within 10 miles of the posted speed limit within one minute, 45 seconds of being tagged and disengaged.

Think about that a moment. Admittedly, a lot of bad stuff can happen in that period of time, but how many pursuits have we seen last 10, 15 or 20 minutes?

Plenty, right?

In the case studies Dr. Alpert examined, there were zero fatalities, zero injuries, and zero property damage. Yes, we have a very small sample size, conducted by a very small number of agencies, but that’s a pretty staggering result even so.

Moving Forward
If there are opportunities for StarChase to improve its offering, they may come in the areas of aiming and arming the device. With the former, there are some safety concerns regarding the “aiming” of the device while also engaged in high-risk, high-speed driving — you have to be within 20 feet of the target vehicle before StarChase can be deployed, and two car lengths of separation at 80 to 100 miles per hour is a little hairy.

“Training and experience can bring an officer to a comfort level, but the tasks involved in aiming the unit at high speeds can be tricky and risky,” Alpert said.

Obviously, this problem would be ameliorated in a two-officer squad, but many agencies have few of those deployments due to budgetary constraints — they’re choosing to roll two single-officer cars instead.

Second, StarChase currently requires that the projectile be armed — essentially, “warmed up” — before deployment, which takes approximately 10 seconds. Consequently, an officer might choose to arm the unit prior to initiating a stop. What the wear and tear of on-again-off-again arming and disarming of the device might be I don’t know, but in general, electronic devices don’t respond all that well to such abuse.

Having said all that, and having familiarized myself with Dr. Alpert’s research and some of the testimonials he included in his draft report, I can firmly say that any agency considering adopting a no-pursuit policy should talk to StarChase first. They really do have a damned fine alternative for your consideration. 

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