HOUSTON -- Somehow the crooks just kept getting away on Wednesday. During a long chase through the streets of Houston broadcast live on local television, police officers stepped out into the road and tossed spike strips onto the pavement. Over and over again, they missed.
A van carrying two fleeing bank robbers avoided the traps and kept on driving, leading officers on a chase that lasted almost an hour.
“Indy 500," said a spectator who watched the cars racing down Scott Street. "That's what it looked like."
As often as they seem to appear on television, police chases usually end quickly and with little drama. And they're generally over before TV helicopters can scramble to the scene. That's the main reason this week's chase had so many people asking the same question.
"Even my niece, who is 19 years old, watching that with her father was saying, 'Why aren't they doing something?' said Ray Hunt, the president of the Houston Police Officers Union. "And I know a lot of people in the public were saying the same thing. Well, they were doing something. They were following policy."
Throwing spike strips into moving lanes of freeway traffic is a dangerous task for any police officer. The strips are heavy and bulky, officers say, so hurling them into the path of an oncoming, speeding car is difficult.
"The officer must get far enough ahead of the vehicle that he is in a practical position to deploy spike strips, number one, without deflating the tires of other traffic other police cars," said Charles McLelland, Houston's police chief. "And then, the officer needs some type of cover."
Only trained officers are supposed to deploy the strips, McLelland said, and they're supposed to make sure they have some sort of cover -- like a car or a concrete abutment -- to hide behind. But during Wednesday's chase, officers ran out into moving lanes of traffic in an attempt to throw spike strips into the path of the van carrying two accused bank robbers.
"It's a very, very dangerous maneuver," McLelland said.
Indeed, some cities have banned the use of spike strips. Dallas police officials discontinued using them last year, worrying they might someday cause an officer's death.
"It's an officer-safety issue," Dallas police Assistant Chief Mike Genovesi told The Dallas Morning News. "In a perfect world they can be effective, but I have seen too many instances where the reality that we live in is far from that. There's a lot of danger, a lot of safety issues with them."
But police union leaders in Houston not only favor the continued use of spike strips, they'd like officers to have even more options like swerving in front of speeding cars to force them to stop. They would also like officers to have the option of shooting into fleeing cars, a practice allowed by the Department of Public Safety. HPD forbade that practice decades ago.
"There are other tactics out there that other departments have employed that we don't allow at the Houston Police Department that I would hope that the administration would look at in the future," Hunt said. "I don't want the option to be to stop chasing people."
Although this week's chase is under routine review, McLelland indicated there are no immediate plans to change Houston's chase policy.