Driving a beat-up former patrol car, Clark County Deputy Pete Muller accelerated to catch up to the designated suspect vehicle. Matching its speed, Muller positioned his car so that his left front bumper barely touched the other car’s right rear side. Pressing on the Crown Victoria’s gas pedal and turning the wheel sharply, he pushed the suspect’s car into a spin.
“It takes a lot of practice to get the sweet spot,” Muller said, amid the odor of burnt rubber.
The pursuit immobilization technique, or a PIT stop, is part of annual emergency vehicle operations training conducted by the Vancouver Police Department and the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
Every fall the two agencies take over Portland International Raceway for a few weeks to refresh the driving skills of patrol officers and deputies.
Each agency requires its sworn officers to be recertified to perform PIT stops as part of the training.
“The idea is to stop a pursuit as fast as we can,” said Vancouver Police Sgt. Tom Ryan.
Pursuits, he said, are inherently dangerous, so policy dictates which scenarios are worthy of a police chase and which aren’t.
Ryan noted that two other pursuing vehicles stopped ahead of and behind the designated suspect’s car, hemming it in.
“You also have to know the post-PIT position,” Ryan explained, “so they don’t start the car up and start it all over again.”
While police are commissioned to catch the criminals, Ryan said that in the heat of the moment, officers have to ask themselves: “Is it more dangerous to society to let them go or to continue the pursuit?”
The agencies wouldn’t say exactly where they draw that line so as not to tip their hand to the criminals.
While pursuit training is required every year, pursuits are somewhat rare.
Since the beginning of 2010, Vancouver police officers have initiated 43 pursuits.
The sheriff’s office, which patrols less-crowded streets, had more than 50 pursuits in 2012, with seven of those ending in PIT stops.
“The bottom line is if the crime is serious enough where apprehension is necessary, we’ll pursue you,” said Vancouver police Sgt. Tim Huberty.
The driver training includes more than high-speed chases.
Instructors teach the common aspects of driving, including a course that focuses on tight movements, such as backing, parallel parking, U-turns and maneuvering in a crowded lot. Huberty said that most vehicles are damaged at slow speeds or while backing up, not during police chases or emergency responses.
Another portion of the training requires officers to take laps around the nearly two-mile racetrack so they can train for getting to an urgent call at a Code 3 pace — using emergency lights and sirens. Instructors focus on teaching officers how to enter and exit corners safely.
But based on the feedback that he gets from participants, Huberty said that the skid car is one of the most beneficial parts of the annual training.
A skid car is a car with eight wheels: four on the vehicle and four more on outriggers. The smaller outrigger wheels are hydraulically controlled to raise and lower the vehicle.
With the adjustment of a few switches, instructors can simulate a number of weather-related problems such as hydroplaning, locked brakes and fishtailing.
“We can simulate that and help officers recognize what’s happening to their cars and teach them the skills to operate safely,” Huberty said.
“Through muscle memory and repetition, we can teach our drivers to be in control in adverse conditions.”
Huberty said that at the end of the day, the training is aimed at making the uniformed officer, who spend most of an eight- or 10-hour shift behind the wheel, safer.