LINCOLN — Two decades ago, Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner was trained to end high-speed chases by bumping a fleeing car into a disabling spin.
His agency, like nearly all others in Nebraska, has turned to other methods, such as using spike strips to puncture the tires of a fleeing vehicle, to end a chase. Some agencies use helicopters or airplanes for pursuits, and many have sought to reduce or eliminate such chases altogether.
There are less risky ways, several law enforcement officials said, than the bumping tactic, known as tactical vehicle intervention (TVI), especially in urban and high-traffic areas.
“There are other techniques and tools now,” Wagner said. “Things have changed in the pursuit world — the public is less tolerant of third parties being injured.”
A TVI was at the center of a recent World-Herald investigation into a high-speed chase by a Nebraska State Patrol trooper.
That chase ended with the death of a fleeing drunken driver on a rural highway in Sheridan County in northwest Nebraska. The handling of the ensuing investigation was cited by Gov. Pete Ricketts as one factor in ordering a review of patrol policies, which led to the firing of the superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol, Col. Brad Rice. Six others at the patrol were put on paid administrative leave.
The case raised questions not only about the credibility of internal investigations by the patrol but also whether TVI can be safely used.
A check of area law enforcement agencies in Nebraska showed that perhaps only the patrol allows the tactic — which also is known as a pursuit intervention technique, or PIT. However, both the Iowa and South Dakota Highway Patrols employ the practice, as do the police forces in Council Bluffs and Rapid City, South Dakota.
The tactic is not new. It was developed three decades ago, adapted from a stock-car racing trick in which a driver would bump a car ahead into a spin, called a “bump and run,” to knock a rival off course.
In the law enforcement maneuver, a pursuing officer uses the front corner or bumper of the patrol car to push into the back quarter panel of a fleeing vehicle, causing it to spin out and stall. That allows for the quick apprehension of a disoriented driver, bringing a potentially dangerous highway chase to a safe conclusion.
Although the maneuver is not used widely in Nebraska, several law enforcement officials maintain that TVI is an effective tool in safely ending high-risk chases, when used appropriately. In cases of pursuits involving dangerous felons, the tactic is an essential tool, they said.
“If you’re chasing a homicide suspect, how do you justify to the victim’s family halting a pursuit?” asked Council Bluffs Police Chief Tim Carmody.
In the Sheridan County case, State Trooper Tim Flick initiated a pursuit after driver Antoine LaDeaux failed to heed a rural stop sign, then sped off when Flick attempted a traffic stop.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Flick said repeatedly that he had used a TVI, according to a review of his dashboard camera video.
But the story changed during the subsequent internal investigation, with Flick and others in his western Nebraska troop saying that LaDeaux had caused the crash by veering into the trooper’s car. Some within the patrol suspected the change was made to avoid scrutiny, embarrassment and possible liability.
That led to two different versions of events being presented by State Patrol personnel to the grand jury that probed the fatality. The different accounts also prompted concerns that internal State Patrol investigators probing the matter were pressured by higher-ups. A Sheridan County grand jury cleared the trooper of responsibility in the death of LaDeaux, though officials interviewed for this story differed on whether they would have launched a high-speed chase for a blown stop sign. The chase, patrol officials said, met their criteria for engaging in a high-speed pursuit.
Still, questions about the handling of the incident prompted Ricketts on June 23 to order a review of the patrol’s “policies, procedures and leadership.” On June 30, Ricketts fired the patrol’s superintendent, citing preliminary findings that “interferences in internal investigations and violations of internal policy” extended to the patrol’s “highest levels.”
The Nebraska State Patrol has been training troopers on the use of TVI since 2010. On average, between five and 11 TVIs are performed out of about 80 high-speed chases a year. By comparison, the Iowa State Patrol has used PIT maneuvers between five and seven times a year in recent years.
“It provides us another option to attempt to safely terminate a pursuit,” said Capt. Buck Duis, who directs the Nebraska State Patrol’s training academy.
Duis and other law enforcement officials said that ending a chase because of dangerous road or traffic conditions is another option.
“We self-terminate far more pursuits than we end with a TVI,” he said, estimating that ending a pursuit happens two to three times more often.
Duis added that TVI is “not an overly difficult maneuver once you understand it and the physics.” If done correctly, the maneuver causes minor denting or creasing damage to the vehicles involved, he said.
An official with the Fairfax (Virginia) County Police Department, which pioneered the use of TVI or PIT maneuvers, said that requests from agencies in his area to learn the technique are on the rise.
Fairfax 2nd Lt. Michael Shamblin said that while such tactics are effective, policies vary widely on when it’s appropriate to initiate a pursuit. Some agencies prohibit chases except when one involves a dangerous felon, and some rural agencies ban all chases, for liability reasons. Other departments, such as the Nebraska State Patrol, leave the decision to an individual officer or a supervisor.
The Nebraska patrol’s policy requires supervisory approval and proper training to use a TVI. Several factors are considered, such as the conduct of the fleeing driver (swerving or driving on the wrong side of the road), the danger of allowing a chase to continue, roadway and traffic conditions, and whether there are passengers in the fleeing car.
In Nebraska, more than one law enforcement official said that the state’s “strict liability” law in high-speed pursuits, which holds governments liable for injuries suffered by innocent third parties in police chases, discourages such chases because of the risk of an accident.
Nebraska is the only state that has such a liability law, which was introduced by State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha following pursuits in Omaha that caused death and injuries to innocent parties. Nebraska law enforcement offices have tried unsuccessfully several times to get the law overturned, including this year.
An Omaha Police Department spokesman said the agency has been advised by city lawyers to not use the TVI.
“We believe this maneuver could potentially be a significant liability for the city,” said Officer Michael Pecha.
The Omaha Police Department has significantly reduced its number of pursuits and related accidents in recent years. In 2007 the department had 156 pursuits that resulted in 41 accidents (which can range from hitting a curb to totaling a car). In 2016, the last year for which statistics were available, there were 56 pursuits and 12 accidents.
Several other agencies, including the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, the Scotts Bluff County Sheriff’s Office, the Kearney Police Department and the Chadron Police Department, said that TVI was not part of their arsenal to stop high-speed chases.
“We’re in a city,” said Kearney Police Chief Dan Lynch. “It would not be safe. There’s just too many things that we’d end up crashing into.”
But the use of TVI is more common in states without strict liability laws, such as Iowa and South Dakota.
The Rapid City Police Department averages about 50 high-speed pursuits a year, and of those, uses TVI four to six times, according to Lt. Elias Diaz, who oversees the agency’s driving training.
The maneuver is not allowed in Rapid City at high speeds, generally in excess of 50 mph. That is unlike the Nebraska State Patrol policy, which has no speed limit. Instead, the Nebraska patrol’s written policy urges caution at higher speeds because the outcome “becomes less predictable and the chances of serious damage and injury increases.”
In the fatal Sheridan County chase, grand jury testimony indicated that the state trooper was driving about 67 mph when he attempted the TVI. The patrol trains for TVI at speeds no higher than 45 or 50 mph, according to that testimony.
But a patrol TVI trainer, Sgt. Cody Paro, told the grand jury that the TVI is a controlled maneuver that can be safely done at higher speeds. He testified that he did not think Flick’s speed was excessive. Paro also said he was “shocked” that LaDeaux’s car had flipped rather than spun out.
Recent chases that involved TVI have had varying results.
On July 10, a California Highway Patrol officer used a TVI to end a 70 mph freeway chase without injury, and Florida state troopers stopped an impaired driver with a PIT maneuver on July 11 without incident. However, in June, three occupants of a car were injured when their car flipped after a South Dakota state trooper used a TVI near Rapid City.
Duis, the Nebraska patrol’s training chief, said he could not recall a TVI other than the Sheridan County crash that caused injuries. Diaz, the Rapid City police official, said he could recall only one bad TVI outcome in his jurisdiction, and that’s when the fleeing driver slammed on the brakes as the maneuver was being attempted, causing a wreck but no injuries.
Sen. Chambers said he would like to outlaw all high-speed chases by police officers, and he considers the bumping tactic unpredictable and risky.
“It comprises a deliberate and intentional act,” he said. “Any bad result can be foreseen.”
The senator also said it was wrong to initiate a chase for a minor offense like a blown stop sign.
The attorney for the state troopers union, Gary Young, disagreed, saying that Trooper Flick initiated the chase because LaDeaux failed to stop and then endangered the public by driving erratically at speeds that reached 80 mph.
Officials with the Nebraska State Patrol said that all but one of the highway patrols in neighboring states use the TVI maneuver.
Nebraska patrol recruits get eight hours of training at the academy on tactical maneuvers, including time on a test track practicing TVI with actual vehicles. Refresher courses are required every two years.
Duis said a TVI might be used to prevent a high-speed chase from entering a more populated area or a city.
Jack Ryan, a Rhode Island attorney who is an authority on use of force by police, said the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that law enforcement can perform tactics like a PIT or TVI if the purpose is to protect the public from a fleeing driver.
Such tactics are “very technical, and scientific” and must be used where traffic and the width of the roadway permit it, Ryan said. At high speeds, such tactics should be used with extreme caution, he said.
“The problem with any maneuver like that is the suspect vehicle can maneuver in a way that defeats your ability to carry it out properly,” Ryan said.
Law enforcement agencies have other means to stop a high-speed chase, such as spike strips or new sticky homing devices that, when launched successfully, will adhere to a fleeing car. But they have limitations, officials said. The Omaha police and similar departments can use helicopters to follow a fleeing car at a safe distance.
Wagner, the Lancaster County sheriff, said that his deputies will still chase dangerous criminals but that, overall, agencies have tightened up their pursuit policies because of liability concerns.
“There’s no reason to risk other people’s lives,” he said.