High-speed police chases are extremely dangerous. At least 11,500 people were killed in police pursuits between 1979 and 2013. More than 5,000 of those deaths were bystanders or passengers; 139 were police officers. Injuries were in the tens of thousands. The costs from court settlements are estimated to be in the billions, according to the nonprofit Americans for Effective Law Enforcement.
The high price and level of carnage has forced many police departments to rethink car chases, with some agencies rewriting their pursuit policies to restrict chases to suspected felons or people who present an imminent threat to others. But the issue has also compelled agencies to consider technological solutions.
The options have ranged from the crude, decidedly low-tech approach of tire deflators to research by the National Institute of Justice into what it calls “directed energy devices,” which send out electrical pulses or microwaves that are supposed to make a car’s electrical system malfunction. Unfortunately, microwaves are not well directed and tend to impact any car within a certain radius of the device.
One approach that has been getting a lot of attention is the GPS bullet. Rather than try to immobilize the fleeing vehicle -- and put the driver and pursuing police in jeopardy -- police can put a tracking device on a vehicle and follow at a slower and safer speed. A compressed-air launcher that is mounted behind the grill of a police cruiser fires the tag, which is a sort of bullet consisting of adhesive and a GPS transponder. Once the bullet is attached to the suspect’s car, the police drop back. The driver of the fleeing vehicle often slows down or stops once they think they’re no longer being pursued, making it easier for the police to apprehend the person.
The device was first tried out by the Arizona Department of Public Safety in 2012. Since then, it has been used by a number of other local law enforcement agencies -- most notably the Milwaukee Police Department. So far, Milwaukee police have deployed the tracking bullets about 50 times, according to Inspector Terrence Gordon, who would not reveal the total number of devices the department has mounted on its cruisers.
The GPS bullet is part of a larger movement by police departments to use technology to find safer, less lethal ways to deal with suspects. Tasers, body cameras and nonlethal ammunition are just some of the tools police have begun using to identify, pursue and stop criminals without resorting to deadly force.
Tasers, which can knock a suspect off his feet with a jolt of electricity delivered by darts, are now used by more than 15,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide. Body cameras, which were considered experimental a few years ago, are essential equipment today, with nearly every large police department planning to deploy them, according to a survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association and the Major Counties Sheriffs’ Association. Nonlethal ammo, such as shotgun-fired beanbags, rubber bullets and special projectiles attached to a police handgun, have also grown in popularity following the events in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.
With each new tool, the police can gain a tactical advantage. Of course, technology alone is not the solution. Milwaukee’s Gordon says the GPS bullets are no panacea for reducing the risk in police pursuits. Like all new technologies, Gordon thinks it’s an option worth testing “given the inherently dangerous nature of pursuits.” Police are trained to take calculated risks, he adds, but police chases are extremely stressful for cops, and there can be high levels of guilt and grief should things go wrong.
“Pursuits can raise adrenaline and emotions, resulting in aggressive confrontations when the suspects are stopped by a pursuit,” says Gordon. “These devices give officers time to [let the adrenaline high pass], so by the time the pursuit is over, they can think more clearly and make better tactical decisions.”