Reporter gets behind-the-wheel training in police pursuits
Sgt. Keith Cornman starts giving me instructions on evasive driving as we maneuver small curves in the training course at highway speeds.
I'm a little nervous, and getting up to 60 mph in seconds as he navigates a series of small, meandering curves doesn't do anything to calm me.
I get my bearings before we take off, but I'm on edge after making a turn at a fairly sharp angle at a speed I'd never be comfortable with in my own vehicle. I swear we've already driven over the row of traffic cones before he even jerks the wheel to avoid them, but a little pull to the side and a short squeal of rubber and we're back on course, the orange markers still upright in our rearview.
The first pass goes exceedingly well, even though I was only driving about 50 mph. Still tense, but it gives me a bit of confidence. I know dozens of police officers and driving instructors are watching with amusement from the other side of the track.
I've loosened a bit when making my second pass. But when Cornman gives his one-word order from the back seat — “Left.” — everything falls apart.
I hesitate, then pull too hard on the wheel and start to lose control. Panic sets in and I immediately overcorrect, sending the scout car into a spin. The car loses momentum quickly and we come to a stop. I glance in the rearview mirror and Cornman is calm, a slight smirk on his face.
The third attempt is worse. When Cornman barks the order — something he admits he intentionally did — my foot punches the gas briefly and the damage is already done.
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Having spun out once, I knew what to expect, but instantly knew this was going to be worse. I lost count of how many times we spun. My mind emptied and I gave up control, only responding to orders from Cornman once we'd decelerated enough to regain control of the car.
By the time everything has stopped spinning for the second time, I want out of that car.
“Not as easy as it looks, huh?” Cornman asks.
At the office
Police officers jokingly refer to their vehicles as their offices, but it's more true than not.
And between 2007 and 2010 in Oklahoma City, those offices were used to chase fleeing suspects 673 times, resulting in 517 apprehensions.
Of those pursuits, 32 resulted in collisions with an officer's vehicle.
Fewer than a quarter of the total number of chases during that period were terminated because the danger to citizens and officers was too high or the offense did not warrant the risk.
During those years, 24 residents were hurt by incidents that happened during pursuits; only one police officer was injured.
It's not a perfect record, and no amount of practice could ever make it so. But they try, Cornman said.
Officers hone their skills on a closed course, where they practice evasive driving, braking maneuvers, pursuits, and weaving through obstacles in drive and in reverse.
The strategy police officers use to maintain strict control while driving is called “shuffle steering,” whereby they always keep their right hands on the right side of the wheel and the left on the left side — pushing the steering wheel rather than pulling it.
During a pursuit, officers have to contend not only with the actions of the fleeing driver, but other drivers on the road, pedestrians crossing the street, the weather and condition of the roads, all while they're doing their best to keep their wheels on the road.
Officers also broadcast a detailed and constant description of the driver's actions over the radio during the course of the pursuit. This allows patrol supervisors listening to determine whether or not to end the chase if it becomes a safety risk. This audio record also is imperative for the successful prosecution of crimes committed on the roads.
During another aspect of pursuit training, a veteran police officer takes the helm of a “violator” car. A traffic stop is initiated as it would be on the road, and the violator flees, leading police on a pursuit around the course, which requires officers to use all of the previous skills they've practiced while constantly updating police headquarters on the fleeing driver's actions.
The officers pursue in pairs, with a primary officer — or the officer directly behind the offending vehicle — and one tailing him. The cars swap positions after two laps.