PIT stop: Deputies learn new way to stop fleeing drivers
JANESVILLE—You feel something bump the rear of your car.
In the space of the next few seconds, your car spins 360 degrees or more.
You are out of control.
The scenery whips past your eyes dizzyingly.
You come to an abrupt stop.
You're momentarily in shock.
By that time, the officers who have been chasing you are up in your grill. Their squads' lights are flashing, sirens piercingly loud, and depending on the circumstances, they might have guns drawn and pointed.
You've just been stopped by the PIT maneuver.
PIT stands for pursuit immobilization technique. Rock County sheriff's deputies learned the maneuver Wednesday on the blacktop of the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds midway.
Done correctly, the pursuing driver positions the nose of her car parallel to the rear side of the fleeing car. The officer moves closer until contact is made and then turns into the fleeing car while simultaneously accelerating.
“OK, now pace him! Get up, get up! You're too far deep. … Now go!” Sgt. Doug Coulter instructed as one of the trainees pursued the fleeing car down the blacktop.
“Go!” was the signal to turn and accelerate. It worked like a dream. Thousands of pounds of fleeing car spun around and stopped.
“Most people have been driving for 10, 20, 30 years, and they are taught not to hit another car,” said Sgt. Mark Thompson, who drove the fleeing car. “And now we're telling them, 'If you do it right, you can control it. … It will spin the vehicle out, and it will enable you to stop that pursuit sooner.' Just another tool for us to have.”
Choosing the right place on the road is crucial, deputies learned.
“It's just meant to stop the suspect. We don't want to hurt anybody else. We don't want any damage to anybody's property,” said Coulter, who teaches the course with Thompson.
The maneuver is not complicated. The hardest part is maintaining the same speed as the fleeing car, Deputy Maria Amador said after her turn at the wheel.
Law enforcement agencies across the country have used the maneuver for years, but most Rock County sheriff's deputies are not trained to perform it. A series of training sessions that continue through May will ensure that all patrol deputies are PIT-certified, Coulter said.
Training officers locally is much cheaper than sending them all to the State Patrol Academy, Coulter said.
The deputies' pursuit car was a 1998 Mercury that was once driven by former Sheriff Eric Runaas. It is on its last legs, Coulter said.
The fleeing car was a former Chicago police car owned by Morrison's Auto Parts of Edgerton, which donated its use for the course.
Hard, flat plastic covered the tread of the rear tires of the fleeing car, making the car prone to skid. That modification allowed the slow-speed training to simulate higher-speed maneuvers.
None of the training runs was more than about 20 mph, Coulter said. Legally, officers in Wisconsin are not allowed to execute the maneuver above 35 mph, unless deadly force is justified.
“Once you get above that limit, then it's considered a ram, which is deadly force,” Coulter said.
“At 35 mph and less, the chances of anything bad happening is obviously greatly reduced, but anything can happen when you contact the vehicle,” Coulter said.
Steel was welded to the frames of both cars to keep them in reasonable shape through numerous runs.
Usually, the maneuver results in little damage to either car, Coulter said.
But the training cars did get dinged, and each “bang” or “crunch” was a lesson in how not to execute the PIT maneuver.
If the pursuit car bangs into the fleeing car instead of giving that push, or if the pursuit car pushes in the wrong place, the two cars can end up banging into each other as the fleeing car spins.
Coulter emphasized that a deputy must not decide on his own how to stop another car. Typically, the pursuing deputy relays facts about the chase on his radio, and he could request permission to perform the maneuver, Coulter said. A supervisor would have to give the go-ahead.
Deputies nodded at the end of the day as Thompson asked if they felt confident they could stop another car during a chase.
“Now add the realism of maybe a homicide suspect,” Thompson told them. “The lights are going. The radio's going, and your heart is racing.”