The Myth of the Split-Second Decision

By James Phillips
President of

Police officers often tell me that they need discretion in pursuit policy because they have to make split-second decisions. This leads me to what I call the myth of the split-second decision.

I can best demonstrate the fallacy of this line of reasoning by relating it to my teaching my son how to pitch in baseball. Before each pitch I taught my son to concentrate on visualizing the pitch. Curveball, fastball or change? In or away, up or down? Where was the batter likely to hit the ball if he was able to handle the pitch? What inning was it? How many outs? What was the score? What was he going to do if the batter bunted or if a base runner decided to steal? With a good baseball player there are rarely any surprises; he knows what he is going to do in virtually any situation. Courses of action dictated by the Rules of the Game, the Percentages, his Experience and by hours of Practice and all before he took a deep breath in preparation for his windup.

Good police officers do the same. Before they ever "light up" a vehicle they have already considered what they will do if the suspect vehicle does not respond appropriately:
1. Does my department's pursuit policy permit me to pursue this suspect?
2. Are there other means of apprehension?
3. Are there any conditions present (traffic, weather, time of day etc.) that make pursuit too dangerous?
4. What is the likely outcome of the pursuit?

Life or death decisions? To be sure. Decisions made on the fly or in a split-second? Not by baseball players or by good, well trained officers.

All over the county, in reaction to one horrifying incident after another, police pursuit policy and practice is coming under review. It is hardly a surprise that generally these reviews result in more restrictive policy when you consider this:

Research shows that approximately 40% of all pursuits result in a crash, 20% result in an injury and 1% result in a death. It is compelling that these percentages vary little from study to study and are accurate for departments throughout the country and over a period of years, even when the numbers of pursuits fluctuate. With as many as 70,000 pursuits occurring every year in the United States the conclusion is inescapable: pursuits are deadly business.