Apprehending the Offender

As is evident in this case, the most dangerous phase of the foot pursuit may be its conclusion. Besides the usual hazards associated with engaging any suspect at contact range, there are a number of other dangers to consider when taking a suspect into custody after a foot chase. You are likely to be fatigued, under the influence of emotions that can cloud your judgment, and in a tactically difficult position. You will have to quickly decide how to stop the suspect based on the perceived threat and other possible variables, execute that decision on the fly, be ready to react if the suspect suddenly produces a weapon, and in many instances wind up on the ground with the suspect. Despite these considerable risks, we persist in going hands-on with suspects in foot pursuits.

As San Francisco Police Academy instructor Sgt. Martin Bandvik explains, foot pursuits “should be held to the same level of caution and risk as vehicle pursuits.” He then goes on to point out we are taught to use high-risk tactics at the conclusion of traffic pursuits instead of swarming the vehicle and its occupants; yet we routinely rush into physical confrontations during foot pursuits. The same principles apply in both cases: follow the offender until he gives up or makes a mistake that forces him to stop; then keep your distance, take cover, wait for backup, and use verbal commands to take him into custody in a controlled manner.1 But there is one significant difference between the two that can make it even more dangerous to approach the offender in a foot pursuit. Unlike car chases, foot pursuits generally entail extreme physical exertion that can negatively impact your ability to control the offender, making it all the more important to avoid physical contact. While it isn’t always possible to follow a fleeing suspect until he stops on his own, it is safest to do so whenever you can. Sgt. Bandvik’s argument offers a sound tactical approach for terminating foot pursuits that is long overdue.

In the event that circumstances call for you to go hands-on, your goal should be to stun the offender and control his hands as you bring him under control. Tackles below the waist should be avoided altogether, as they are almost certain to result in a hard fall, often with your knees, elbows and/or hands taking the brunt of the blow when you land. A broken bone in any of these places can be debilitating, leaving you dangerously vulnerable to attack. Furthermore, hitting the offender low makes you unnecessarily vulnerable to foot and knee strikes while leaving his/her hands free to access a weapon or grab yours.

A much better approach is to jump the suspect, hitting him/her high and hard from behind. This will allow you to ride his/her body to the ground while probably causing him/her to land hard the enough to stun him/her. Before he/she can regain his senses enough to resist, get his/her arms and hands under control and cuff him/her as soon as possible. While there are still some serious risks involved in the execution of this tactic, it safer than a low tackle or grabbing hold of him/her.

Another alternative is the use of an electronic control device. While this has its advantages, there are also some important cons to consider. Many agencies forbid the use of ECDs to stop fleeing suspects unless other aggravating factors are present, accuracy is a problem when firing on the run, and you have to be close enough to connect with both probes. Furthermore, despite their high quality, ECDs sometime fail, as happened in Detective Reston’s case. Nevertheless, when they can be properly employed, ECDs are a very effective means for stopping the offender. The physical effects are virtually instantaneous and usually overwhelming enough to bring the subject down without delay. Unless a wire breaks or a probe pulls free, you should also have time to take a breath and assess the situation for a moment before taking further action. As long as you are ready with another alternative if the ECD fails, it can be a very good option.

Finally, it is important to mention the use of deadly force as an option in the most extreme cases. While shooting a fleeing suspect is still legal under certain limited circumstances, its use brings the most extreme scrutiny from the courts, media and public opinion, and may result in social unrest, especially if there is any appearance of impropriety. Under Tennessee v. Garner, it is only justified when “necessary to prevent the escape (of a fleeing suspect) and the officer has probable cause to believe the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”2

The element of risk to others is especially relevant here. An armed and/or otherwise dangerous suspect can pose a serious risk to those we are sworn to protect, and this risk must be seriously considered when deciding whether to shoot a fleeing suspect. Justification for the use of deadly force depends upon the totality of the circumstances of course, including the laws and policies in your jurisdiction, and the decision to shoot a fleeing suspect should never be taken lightly. On the other hand, when the only other alternative is to blindly follow an armed felon into a high-risk situation, deadly force may be the only reasonable way to protect your own life and the lives of others as well.