Pit training

Cullman City Police practice a pit maneuver in this Times file photo.

When Cullman City police officer Cole Kelley brought a safe and decisive end to a high-speed chase earlier this week near Jones Chapel, he did it using a driving skill that cops are taught, but aren’t often called upon to use in real-life situations.

The PIT maneuver — short for pursuit intervention technique — involves a patrol car gently nudging a fleeing vehicle when the physics of a chase situation are just right — and when the conditions allow for the maneuver to be carried out with a minimal risk to the safety of the officer, the suspect, and bystanders.

Gene Bates, the department’s Captain of Patrol, has been teaching the maneuver to patrol officers since obtaining training and certification from the Fairfax County, Virginia Police Department (where the technique originated). Bates says the decision whether to use the PIT maneuver requires a level of alertness and big-picture consideration that’s an essential part of an officer’s training, since it implies the use of a potentially deadly force.

“Every time that it’s used, we go back and look at how it was used,” Bates explained Friday. “Typically when an officer does use it, everybody in the department knows about it, and it’s looked at by the chief’s office. Because at the end of the day, it involves using your vehicle to make contact with another moving vehicle, which can carry a life-threatening risk.

“In officer Kelley’s case, he saw an opportunity to use the PIT maneuver in a window of safety that is always very narrow, and he did it successfully and stopped the pursuit. In training, we emphasize how quickly you have to make that judgment call. Things happen fast: Cole seeing the suspect’s brake lights come on; monitoring the speed of both vehicles, taking in the surroundings including other people and vehicles, and making that quick decision whether to act before the window closes. It all worked out, which is what we train and prepare for.”

A funny anecdote: As a PIT trainer for more than 10 years, Bates estimates he’s performed the maneuver more than 1,000 times in a controlled environment. And he’s certainly been involved in his share of high-speed chases over the years.

“But do you know, in my lifetime, how many PITs I’ve actually done in a real-life chase? Zero,” he says. “That’s how much of a judgment call, and how much of a narrow window of circumstance, the opportunity to use the maneuver usually is. You can go your whole career without ever having to use it.”

Above all, safety provides the overarching consideration when an officer uses the PIT maneuver, and Bates is quick to point out that it’s not a go-to option in most pursuit situations. “I don’t want officers to get it in their heads that, at every opportunity, they should be doing the PIT,” he explains.

“That’s the last thing we want them to think. A lot of chases are better brought to an end by spike strips, or by staying on the pursuit and communicating with all the units who may need to become involved. The PIT really does require the right set of conditions to be used in the first place.”

Roadways are always unpredictable, and the frequency with which the maneuver is used locally varies widely from one day, month, or year to the next. But viewed over a ten-year span, Bates estimates Cullman officers use the PIT, on average, about three times a year.

The PIT isn’t always a matter of bringing a dramatic end to some high-speed, criminal on-the-run scenario like the kind that plays out on TV and movie screens. “We even had a case in the past where someone was suffering from a diabetic reaction, and an officer used the PIT to get them to stop. The officer didn’t know any of that, in the moment: He just saw a car that was driving erratically and wouldn’t stop, posing a threat to other motorists.

“That gentleman; the driver who was suffering that diabetic episode — he came back to us at a later date, and actually thanked everybody who was involved in stopping him. He actually told us: ‘I don’t know what I would have done if y’all hadn’t done that.’ To me, that illustrates how the PIT maneuver can be a really useful tool in an officer’s bigger toolbox — even if it’s in ways you might never expect.”

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