Answer Man

Spike strips stop vehicles, cause cop and bystander deaths, too

An officer demonstrates throwing out spike strips.
An officer demonstrates throwing out spike strips. Chiefsupply.com

Q: After the recent robbery at Plaza Frontenac, it was reported that spike strips were used on I-55 to stop the getaway car. How are such strips put down? Is traffic stopped on the highway? We’re curious about this.

Ray and Rose Anne Bense, of Columbia

A: It seems so quick, easy and painless when we hear it on the news or see it on a TV crime show, doesn’t it?

Trying to stop a fleeing suspect’s car? Just throw out a spike strip in front of the speeding vehicle and flatten its tires. The car usually has to grind to a halt — literally — on it rims, and another perp is caught. What could be simpler? Like you — and probably most people — I hardly gave it a second thought until you asked. But after just a little research, I discovered that it is not nearly as simple or innocuous as it sounds.

Just last year, for example, the New York Times ran an in-depth investigation on how at least 30 law enforcement officers and innocent bystanders have been killed during the use of these devices in the 20 years since they started becoming popular. Some officers have been intentionally run over by criminals trying to avoid them while others have been killed by those who have lost control of their cars after their tires lost pressure. Dallas police banned them in 2012. And while safer technologies have been developed, even the FBI, after a series of fatal crashes, issued a bulletin in September 2012 calling for law-enforcement agencies to explore other ways to deal with high-speed chases.

When you look at how they have to be used — at least in the past — you quickly understand the concern. Spike strips usually consist of dozens of 2- to 3-inch-long metal barbs, teeth or spikes that have been fastened onto a flexible latticework base that can extend across several lanes of traffic when deployed. As a car drives over it, the spikes become embedded in the tires, flattening them. But it’s the way the strip is deployed that can be a killer.

To use the traditional spike strips, officers positioned ahead of the chase have to leave the safety of their patrol car, pull the device from their trunk and then manually toss it from the side of the road at just the right time as the chase approaches. In such a spur-of-the-moment situation, you can’t stop traffic on a busy interstate to single out a fleeing felon.

Then, after nailing the suspect’s car, the strip is pulled back to avoid as much collateral damage as possible to police cars and innocent drivers who are following. If all goes well, the criminal is caught while everyone else enjoys a fairy-tale ending.

But you probably see how inherently dangerous this can be. In the haste in which the strips must be laid down, innocent drivers often find themselves the victims of flat tires, which can lead to serious accidents. Even worse, the thin blue line becomes even thinner when suspects purposely slam into the spike-deploying officers to avoid capture.

That’s what prompted the New York Times story last year. On May 18, 2015, Houston Officer Richard Martin was struck and killed while trying to throw out a spike strip to stop a burglary suspect who had stolen a woman’s car at gunpoint and fired shots at officers. The police said Jeffery Ryan Conlin intentionally hit Martin and sped away, only to stop a short time later and fatally shoot himself.

Just days later, Christopher Gebers, another fleeing suspect, swerved to avoid spike strips and struck two Colorado State Patrol officers, killing a 21-year-old cadet and seriously injuring another. Gebers was charged with first-degree murder. The Colorado State Patrol immediately had the strips removed from their officers’ cars.

“It’s a dangerous thing to do,” Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, told the Times. “You’re taking this thing and physically throwing it out into the street. You’ve got to get to a place of safety right away, and if you don’t, the results can be tragic.”

New types of spike strips developed recently allow them to be quickly set on the side of a road and then triggered remotely, but it remains yet another danger law enforcement faces in working to keep the public safe. For a demonstration of a new type of strip and video of the perils associated with the old, go to www.dynaspike.com.

Today’s trivia

Why is William Kemmler a name to remember in criminal history?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: All states are guaranteed three votes for president in the Electoral College, which means some states are overrepresented based on population. The worst case is Wyoming. Each electoral college vote represents an average of 589,000 Americans, but Wyoming has only 588,000 residents, which means they are getting two more votes than they should. Conversely, California has 55 electoral votes but should have 65 if you go strictly by average population.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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