I don't know many cops who are big fans of Fox-TV's "World's Wildest Police Videos." This witless pastiche of police pursuits, car crashes, rampaging mobs and other public calamities offers these assorted moments of police work as prime-time entertainment. The hour-long programs are hosted by John Bunnell, a media-savvy ex-deputy sheriff who first leveraged his appearances on "Cops" (also produced by Paul Stojanovich Productions) to propel himself into the office of county sheriff. He then retired to become what is known in the entertainment business as the "on-camera talent" for "Wildest Videos." I'll admit Bunnell has apparently mastered the art of learning his lines and hitting his marks, but whether there's any talent on display here remains open to question.
I confess to occasionally watching snippets of "Wildest," usually during commercial breaks on other programs, always with the volume turned off. Bunnell's tough-guy on-camera persona is grating enough, but his voice-over of the action depicted is even more annoying: "This maniac is driving 75 mph and heading straight for the middle of town. In rush hour. If he makes it into downtown traffic, there's no telling what'll happen. The officers know they've gotta shut him down before he hurts somebody. And fast."
But with the volume shut off to silence Bunnell's inane chatter, it's possible to watch the action unfold without distractions. And it's the action that's so frequently disquieting.
Example: A swarm of units from an assortment of city and county agencies pursues a traffic offender. I count at least nine or 10 patrol cars, a road sergeant, one K9 officer, two detectives and an air unit. At various moments I'm reasonably sure I catch glimpses of a SWAT van, a police department tow truck and two meter maids on Cushmans also in pursuit.
The suspect passes highway traffic on the shoulder at 100 mph. The two lead units do likewise. Then the fleeing suspect crosses the median and heads north in southbound Lane One, driving headlong into three lanes brimming with oncoming traffic. The same two units follow suit; the primary unit thoughtfully takes time out from his driving chores to radio dispatch: "We're northbound in the southbound lanes now. Speed, 100. This guy's crazy!"
Excuse me? Here we've got not one but two officers driving at high speed on the wrong side of the highway in pursuit of a traffic offender, assisted by at least a dozen other units with more en route. And they're calling the suspect nuts? Even the worst-written pursuit policies limit the number of pursuing units to two, three at most. They also address other niggling issues, such as whether it's okay to pass on the shoulder at triple-digit speeds, rather than waiting for traffic to clear, and if driving the wrong way on a crowded highway is justified after observing a violation no more serious than a minor traffic infraction.
Frequently, such episodes climax in a multi-vehicle crash, with the bad guy taking out one or more civilians in the process. The civilians' only mistake was the bad luck to have used a public thoroughfare while a pursuit was in progress.
Citizens don't think much about pursuit policies and naively believe their public safety department follows a well-written pursuit policy, trains its officers to drive safely in pursuits and exercises due diligence in protecting the public in the process and enforces its own policy. If nothing else, "World's Wildest Police Videos" serves to bolster the observation that many departments remain oblivious to the public's safety when pursuing offenders.
At least until an unusually nasty fatality makes the headlines. Then the top brass will issue statements with assurances policy is being carefully reviewed and any necessary changes to enhance public safety will certainly be made. And so on.
Truth is, this scenario happens so frequently it rarely rates more than a single page-one headline before it gets buried in the back pages and disappears. If the incident truly shocks public sensibilities maybe the suspect crashes into a Hyundai full of nuns, which explodes as it wipes out a bus stop packed with children a panel might convene to defuse the resulting PR brouhaha. Meanwhile, a harried PIO issues a public statement, concluding, "Hey, it's the suspect's fault. He failed to stop, so we had no choice but to chase him."
Once the furor subsides, the panel quietly issues a report that says the policy's just fine and no changes are required. Only when the city is fighting a high-profile, wrongful-death suit will the policy come under any real public scrutiny.
Let's face it, after Sacramento vs. Lewis (1998), in practical terms, no matter how horrendous the aftermath of a pursuit, officers remain virtually untouchable in court. (In overturning a federal appeals court ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that under the 14th Amendment, officers can be held liable for a pursuit-related death only if their actions "would shock the conscience.") This may help explain the casual regard many departments exhibit for either putting into place a comprehensive pursuit policy or for enforcing one already established.
For the sake of argument, let's say that by keeping and enforcing such a policy, a department reduces pursuit-related crashes by five percent each year, keeps two officers from being injured and saves one civilian life. (The Baltimore and Orlando police departments, among others that instituted strict pursuit policies, do considerably better than that.) Considering the typical seven-figure settlement costs of a wrongful-death suit and similar amounts paid in workers' compensation claims, wouldn't it make sense to keep a fine-tuned, realistic policy in place and strictly enforce it before somebody else dies and the issue makes the news? The cost-saving aside, what department couldn't benefit from a little good PR these days?
Pursuit Policy Resource
In 2004, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) updated its "Sample Policy on Vehicular Pursuit." Find it on the IACP Web site at www.iacp.org (click on Publications, and then click on View Publications Documents from Previous Years).
The Orlando Police Department's Pursuit Policy
In March 2004, the Orlando Police Department adopted what is considered the nation's most stringent pursuit policy. This occurred in the wake of a widely publicized pursuit of two suspects that ended in the death of a child riding in another vehicle. Orlando's pursuit policy mirrors that of the Orange County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office, adopted the previous year.
The policy prohibits pursuits except in confirmed cases of major violent crimes. It also requires a supervisor's approval. In all other instances, a failure to stop can't be the prelude to a pursuit. Instead, officers involved must turn off their emergency lights and turn around, making clear they are not in pursuit.
In the year following implementation of the new policy, the department made 40,460 traffic stops. A total of 107 suspects refused to stop and 11 pursuits resulted, the latter a 59 percent reduction over the previous year. Reported felonies during the same period declined by 1.1 percent, despite a gain in population. The remaining eight agencies in Orange County have since adopted similar pursuit policies.
Craig Peterson has been road-testing and reviewing police vehicles cars, SUVs, undercover units and others since 1990 and has constructed a number of widely publicized police concept vehicles seen at IACP and similar venues. He's an IPTM-certified police radar instructor, an ex-race car driver and has authored hundreds of stories on vehicles, driver training, mobile electronics and speed-measuring technology for U.S. and foreign law enforcement magazines since 1990.