A recent study done by Kaminski, Rojek, Smith and Alpert reviewed nine years of foot pursuit data from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). The analysis showed that 16.9% of all foot pursuits resulted in injury, a rate similar to other resistive encounters.
Based on this data, Kaminski et al. concluded that foot pursuits are no riskier than other use-of- force encounters and that therefore enhanced study of foot pursuits may not be warranted. However, this should not be construed to mean that such injuries are acceptable or that agencies should not bother to implement training, guidelines, and policies to reduce them.
An important finding from the LASD study was that, even with progressive risk management bureau in place and corresponding training initiatives, deputies were injured in one out of every five to six foot pursuits. One must ask what other law enforcement activities have an injury rate that high or how much higher that injury rate would be in an agency without a policy or training guidelines.
Kaminski et al. described the majority of deputy injuries as minor, with only 6% of the pursuits resulting in a major injury, classified as fractures, lacerations, dog bites, concussions, gunshot wounds, and puncture wounds to the head, face, or groin. Bruises, sprains, scrapes, and soft tissue damage were considered minor for the purposes of the analysis.
The classification of sprains and soft tissue damage as minor may be misleading. Common soft tissue injuries, such as an ACL tears, torn tendons, and meniscus damage can require surgery and extensive rehabilitation, sometimes keeping an officer out of work for a year or longer. There is no indication of what criteria was used to differentiate between major and minor injuries, but it does not appear that information regarding lost work days and workers compensation losses were considered in evaluating injury severity.
Despite the fact that foot pursuits have been shown to produce injury rates similar to other use-of-force encounters law enforcement executives approach them very differently. Most departments proactively regulate use-of-force and related activity by implementing policies to govern behavior and conducting frequent in-service training. Few do the same for foot pursuits. It is likely that this failure increases the likelihood of both officer injury and civil liability.
Foot pursuits are risky for both officers and suspects. In fact, 60% of the LASD foot pursuits resulted in suspect injury. Lee McCown, a retired Commander from the LASD and now the contract consultant for risk management in the Orange County (CA) Sheriff’s Department, was the original architect of the LASD Risk Management Bureau. In his work, he emphasized the need for tracking and accountability, especially in regard to use-of-force and foot pursuits.
The driving force behind that initiative was the high number of officer and suspect injuries occurring during foot pursuits. The goal was to reduce injuries and lawsuits by minimizing the number of situations requiring force. Their approach included a re-working of the existing foot pursuit policy and the incorporation of a comprehensive reporting system that requires supervisors to determine if pursuits are within policy, increasing accountability in the same nature as that required for significant uses of force.
Commander McCown stressed the importance of monitoring officer behavior in such situations, recognizing their substantial risk management implications and that law enforcement executives have a vested interest in both injury prevention and liability management.
Agencies should develop policies and training to standardize tactics proven to be effective in these regards. Officers and supervisors should be required to evaluate the totality of circumstances when deciding to pursue, and to recognize that some chases are not worth the risks that they create – as they would in vehicular pursuit decision-making. They should be trained to consider potential risks such as weapons, communications, weather, unfamiliarity with the area, physical fitness levels, availability of backup, and seriousness of the suspected crime.
Guidelines should also be created that define situations when officers should not initiate or continue foot pursuit, such as when an officer loses his or her firearm, is unsure of his or her location, gets injured, or loses radio communications. Consideration should be given to limiting any extensive foot pursuit activity to the apprehension of serious criminals.
Tactical considerations should be outlined advising officers to contain rather than pursue into confined spaces, remain aware of ambush situations, follow in the suspect’s steps, and recognize that the suspect can turn and become a threat at any time. All this should be reinforced through recurrent training.
Supervisors must recognize their role as well, monitoring field performance and reviewing pursuits to ensure that they are within policy. Managers must evaluate officer judgment in regard to safety and provide necessary review and remedial training for identified concerns.
Supervisors and managers should be charged with responsibility for supervising pursuits, as they would be in vehicular pursuits, terminating those where the danger to the officers or public outweighs the need for immediate apprehension of the suspect.
Required reporting of foot pursuits and tracking of such incidents and their outcomes will help to identify agency trends and appropriately corresponding risk management initiatives. Risk-reward ratios should be examined.
Agencies should look at existing policies from other jurisdictions and develop an approach that will be most effective in their department based on agency size, jurisdictional demographics, organizational culture, and existing training. Better strategy in this area will heighten officer and public safety and reduce loss in both workers’ compensation claims and civil lawsuits.
Captain Adrienne Quigley is a 17-year veteran of the Arlington County, Va. Police Department. She has held supervisory positions in patrol, investigations and professional standards, and is a nationally recognized expert in officer safety and injury prevention. She graduated with high honors from the George Washington University and her Master's Degree in Public Administration is from George Mason University.
Randy Means is a partner in Thomas & Means, a law firm specializing entirely in police operations and administration. He has served the national law enforcement community full time for more than 30 years and is the author the "The Law of Policing," which is available at LRS.com. He can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.