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Successful Pursuits: Huntington Beach Police Vehicle Training Reduces Liability and Saves Lives

I felt like I’d been tossed in a salad. In one long afternoon, I fled the scene of a robbery in a getaway car and was brought to a screeching halt by a police cruiser using the latest technique in subduing criminals. Fortunately, it was all just an exercise in making our city safer. 

Earlier in the week, Huntington Beach Police Chief Ken Small invited me to experience the city’s emergency vehicle operations course (EVOC). “As the city administrator, it would be good for you to see how our officers train. Besides, they are proud of what they do,” he explained.
As the big day approached, I received directions to wear comfortable clothes, “plan to get real dirty and maybe take some motion sickness medicine.”
Ten Years of High-Speed Training
The Huntington Beach Police Department has been conducting the city’s EVOC training for 10 years. The session I attended was held on a two-mile strip at a decommissioned military base. Designed to train police officers to control their vehicle under extreme conditions, the training is credited with reducing the city’s overall accident rate by 30 percent. Officers believe the training is a major factor in their ability to engage in successful pursuits that end quickly without harming anyone.
The program goal, according to Lieutenant Tom Donnelly, is to teach the officer to react quickly and correctly in an emergency situation. “Our department drives over one million miles a year on public streets,” he says. “In an emergency, you get that first shot of adrenaline and your perceptions change; you have tunnel vision and your skills can decrease. It takes two to three minutes before you’re in control. The training kicks in during the first three minutes when you’re still experiencing the adrenaline rush.”
Since the program began in 1996, the city has reduced its officer-involved collisions by 38 percent. In the eight years prior to the training, the Police Department had 479 collisions involving officers. In the eight years following program implementation, the number dropped to 296. The city’s best year to date was 2004, with only eight officer-involved automobile accidents -- not bad for a Police Department that responds to 176,000 calls for service annually in a city with a population of 200,000. Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Sullivan heralds the reduction in liability as “a boon for our community and our Police Department. Any program that makes our streets safer and saves money is worth the investment.”
The innovative training program includes a technique called pursuit intervention technique (PIT). The officer learns to pace the suspect’s vehicle and then tap the side of it with the police cruiser to send the fleeing car into a spin. The ideal conclusion is a dazed suspect and the end of the pursuit. The officer can predict how the getaway vehicle will stop by the way he or she makes contact with the fleeing car. It’s a controlled maneuver that ensures the safety of the officer and suspect. Because the officer chooses when to use the technique, innocent bystanders don’t get hurt.
“We can do a lot for the public in addition to conducting a good investigation. We can keep them safe on our streets and in their neighborhoods. That’s what this training is all about,” comments Donnelly, one of the program designers. Former Huntington Beach Mayor Jill Hardy agrees. “It’s a tremendous asset for our community. The better trained our officers are, the better decisions they make in the field. All around, the program is about keeping our citizens safe,” says Hardy, who acknowledged the training team last year during her term as mayor.
Program Follows GM Model
The EVOC training was modeled after a program established by General Motors (GM). Four sergeants were sent to Mesa, Ariz., in 1993 to be trained as trainers. GM conducted the program to help law enforcement agencies handle the newly released Chevrolet Caprice, which had become the pursuit vehicle of choice in the early 1990s. The sergeants returned and designed the course, borrowing space at an undeveloped park site in a neighboring town. It took two years to design the program and course. Four years later, the training moved to a decommissioned military base after the park was developed.
The program consists of one 12-hour training session conducted every two years. It is mandatory for all officers and qualifies as “perishable skills training” under Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST). Three hours of the training is delivered in a classroom and covers city liability, department policies concerning pursuits, state and federal laws, and how to assess conditions before engaging in a pursuit. The remainder of the training is behind the wheel in pursuits and traversing obstacles. The cost for a two-year training cycle is $77,000 or $420 per officer. This includes police garage costs of $12,180 for parts, labor and tires; $6,820 for fuel, food and supplies; and $58,000 for instructors in order to maintain a 2-1 student-trainer ratio.
Donnelly says the training is about more than just handling pursuits. “It’s also about changing the culture to give grace to canceling pursuits. It’s a huge responsibility to chase someone.” He explains that making a decision not to pursue is as important as making one to pursue. “And the side benefit to the training is that we are better drivers. Our residents and families are safer as a result of this training,” he adds.
Can any city design this training? “Absolutely,” says Donnelly, “in four easy steps.” He recommended allowing one year to design the program, using the following steps:
1. Select a site. Ten acres is ideal, but a smaller site can work. Your program will likely need a use permit and liability insurance. Establishing the physical course is time consuming and requires some expert assistance, which can be obtained by using Huntington Beach’s materials or by contacting Tom Norkiewicz at General Motors Proving Grounds Traffic Safety Department in Mesa, Ariz.; phone: (480) 827-5274; e-mail: tom.norkiewicz@gm.com.
2. Select and train personnel as trainers. Training can be arranged through GM or one of the existing programs throughout the state, including Huntington Beach, the City of Los Angeles, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol (Sacramento) or Alameda County Sheriff’s Department (Pleasanton).
3. Develop the curriculum. The Huntington Beach program is POST certified. A copy of the curriculum is available upon request.
4. Arrange the logistics of training, which include obtaining the practice vehicles, tires and supplies, and setting the training schedule.Huntington Beach supplies its own vehicles, setting aside older pursuit cars and equipment that aren’t reliable enough for daily use. A supply of old tires with “just enough tread” is needed for the operation. Even balding tires can be used. Orange cones are a staple to properly design the course, as are a few street signs so officers can radio
in the progress
of the pursuit.
The amount of time and energy it takes to learn one skill set for safety is impressive. For me, it was a harrowing day. For the officers, it was just business as usual. It takes moxie, guts and a commitment to the profession to train and apply the techniques I witnessed at the EVOC. In the end, though, everyone walks away safe and sound -- except the bewildered criminal.
For more information on establishing your own emergency vehicle training program, contact: Lt. Tom Donnelly, Huntington Beach Police Department; phone: (714) 536-5918.