Dedicated to Sarah Phillips

Words to Live By

The Myth of the Split-Second Decision


Quite often we hear the Pursue/No Pursue decision has to be made in a split second, and we should allow some latitude to officers if they don’t follow policy or make poorly reasoned choices.

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? I don’t think so—not by baseball players, or by good, well-trained officers.
Jim Phillips, February 21, 2004