A police pursuit is an action in which a police officer driving an authorized police vehicle attempts to stop a suspect or violator who is operating a motor vehicle and evades, eludes, or flees from the officer. There are two general types of police pursuits. The first is the slow-speed pursuit, where a suspect-driver does not exceed the posted speed limit and commits few if any traffic violations. In this pursuit, the suspect-driver fails to immediately stop the vehicle at the direction of an officer; it typically ends when the suspect-driver arrives at a destination or has an accident or the vehicle runs out of fuel. Elderly citizens with dementia and people suffering from mental illness may commit these types of pursuits.

The second type of pursuit is the highspeed pursuit. In a high-speed pursuit, a suspect-driver persistently and aggressively exceeds the speed limit, disregards or violates numerous traffic and criminal laws, and generally threatens his or her own welfare and that of the public and the police. Additionally, a high-speed pursuit represents a significant threat to property (for example, other vehicles, buildings, residences).

Regardless of the type, a pursuit is a unique phenomenon that has far-reaching consequences for the police, the public, lawmakers, and governments.

Anatomy of a Police Pursuit

Although unique, each police pursuit can be understood as a four-stage continuum in which three sets of variables continuously interact. The four stages are as follows [National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) 1998]:

Prepursuit. The period when an officer attempts to stop a vehicle and when the officer realizes the suspect-driver is attempting to flee Communication. The period when an officer notifies other officers and the dispatcher of the particulars of the pursuit and the officer’s need for backup and other resources Arrival of resources: The period when backup officers and resources arrive and attempt to terminate the pursuit Postpursuit: The period when the pursuit is terminated because the suspect-driver has stopped or has eluded the police.

One set of variables in this continuum belongs to the pursuit officer. These variables include driving skills as determined by training and experience, physical and mental conditioning, familiarity with a pursuit area, knowledge of and willingness to abide by the department’s pursuit policy, access to pursuit-stopping technology and tactics, and the condition of the officer’s vehicle.

Significant environmental variables include the time of day, type of area (for example, rural or urban), types and conditions of roadways (for example, highway or street), traffic density, and weather.

The final set of variables is the suspect-driver’s. It includes a suspect’s infraction or crime, age, criminal history, mental state, physical state (for example, intoxicated or high), physical abilities, maturity, and the condition of the suspect’s vehicle.

These variables interacting across the stages serve to produce a distinct pursuit.

Background of Pursuits

The study of police pursuits is a relatively new phenomenon, with the bulk of research occurring since 1990. Nonetheless, limited research provides a distinct picture of pursuits. Pursuits usually occur on local roads at night and are perpetrated by young males (Rivara and Mack 2004). There are a variety of reasons for pursuit initiation, such as traffic infractions, stolen vehicle, driving while impaired (DWI), wanted person, and crime-in-progress.

A traffic infraction is the most common event leading to a pursuit, followed by a suspect driving a stolen vehicle (Alpert 1997; Minnesota Department of Public Safety 2001; Nichols 2005). The most common reason for a pursuit termination is a suspect stopping voluntarily. A suspect crashing is the second most common cause of a pursuit termination, and this generally occurs before the sixth minute of a pursuit (NLECTC 1998).

Pursuits terminating in accidents pose serious and significant problems for the police and the public. An examination of fatalities related to police pursuits for a nine-year period (1994-2002) reveals the following (Rivara and Mack 2004, 93):

There were 260-325 police pursuits ending in a fatality annually in the United States for a total of 2,654 crashes involving 3,965 vehicles and 3,146 fatalities during the nine-year study period. Of the 3,146 fatalities, 1,088 deaths were of people not in the fleeing vehicle and 2,055 to people in the fleeing vehicle. Altogether 102 (3.2%) of the fatalities were non-motorists, 40 were police officers, 946 (30.1%) were occupants of vehicles uninvolved in the police pursuit, and three were unknown. Most of the innocent deaths were not vehicle occupants, with 102 being either pedestrians or bicyclists.

It is primarily the injurious and deadly nature of pursuit accidents that has driven pursuit-related research, legislative reviews, policy makeovers, public debate, liability lawsuits, and technological innovations (Alpert 1997; Jopson 2005; Rivara and Mack 2004).

Police Pursuit Policies

One of the unique characteristics of policing is the broad decision-making ability accorded police officers, especially those working in patrol. This decision-making ability is known as discretion, and as the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system, police officers hold a significant amount of discretionary authority. For example, a police officer has the authority to stop, search, interview, and arrest a citizen for hundreds of reasons. Conversely, a patrol officer exercises tremendous discretion when he chooses to ignore violations that he considers to be insignificant or bothersome (for example, littering, disorderly conduct, traffic violation, DWI).

As policing has evolved, however, there has been a concerted effort by many government entities to control the discretionary power of police. For example, legislatures have enacted laws that mandate the arrest of assaulters in domestic violence incidents. Prior to the enactment of domestic violence laws, police chose from a number of options when determining the fate of an abusive spouse (for example, arrest or physical separation or transporting the victim to a shelter). The Supreme Court severely curtailed the police’s discretionary use of deadly force when confronting an unarmed fleeing felon (Tennessee v. Garner 1985). Although the Supreme Court and state legislatures delineated police discretion in these circumstances, it became the police departments’ responsibility to ensure that their police officers understood these changes. These changes became written policies through administrative rule-making (Walker and Katz 2005).

Administrative rulemaking extends to police department pursuit policies. Monetary losses from wrongful death and injury lawsuits, a drive to professionalize policing, concern for citizens and community safety, passage of restrictive legislation, need for improved police-community relations, and advances in criminal identification and apprehension all serve to push police officials toward implementing pursuit policies. However, there are wide variations in the amount of discretion given to officers in pursuit policies. These policies fall into one of four categories: no pursuit, permissive, restrictive, and discretionary.

Generally, an agency establishes a no-pursuit policy when it is not set up to engage in high-speed pursuits. An agency with a small number of personnel, limited jurisdiction (for example, campus police), and/or lack of emergency-equipped vehicles may not permit its officers to take part in high-speed pursuits. An agency patrolling an area with rigid geographic boundaries (for example, an island municipality) may not have a need to conduct highspeed pursuits. Very few police agencies have a no-pursuit policy (NLECTC 1998).

A permissive pursuit policy generally encourages police officers to conduct pursuits in a safe and efficient manner. However, a permissive pursuit policy offers little or vague guidance to an agency’s officers. For years, this policy was a standard for many of the nation’s police departments. With courts, communities, and departments recognizing that unregulated and unchecked pursuits are injurious and dangerous, a majority of departments are discarding permissive policies and adopting either a restrictive or a discretionary pursuit policy.

A restrictive policy severely limits police officers’ discretion in pursuits. It typically calls for the police to initiate or continue a pursuit only in felony circumstances or when a suspect presents a significant and immediate danger to the public (for example, Baltimore Police Department 1990). Under this type of policy, a police officer would be expected to pursue a murderer, rapist, robber, or other wanted felon who chose to flee. Additionally, police could pursue people suspected of injurious misdemeanors such as domestic violence and assault if their identities are unknown. Under a restrictive policy, police typically would not pursue a traffic violator, someone in possession of illicit drugs, or someone involved in a nonviolent crime unless that person represented a tremendous danger to the general public and the person’s identification was unknown (for example, a DWI suspect who bolts an auto-pedestrian accident).

A discretionary pursuit policy provides specific guidelines to officers in departments that grant them authority to initiate and continue pursuits. The overriding goal of this type of policy seeks to balance the needs for the police to apprehend law violators with the requirement that police not unduly jeopardize public safety. In this vein, discretionary policies usually stipulate that police halt pursuits when the danger to the public is extreme. Also, a discretionary policy may limit the types of incidents where officers may initiate a chase but is not so restraining as a restrictive policy (Louisville Metro Police Department 2003; Streisand 2003). Typically, a discretionary policy provides a number of criteria that a department mandates its police officers abide by in pursuit decision making. Although each police department is free to tailor its discretionary policy to its prevailing legal, political, and community environments, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), recommends a number of elements that a policy should address (2004).

First, the IACP specifies that the initial decision to pursue a suspect-driver belongs to a pursuing officer, provided that the officer critically weighs the dangers of pursuing versus not pursuing. The IACP also calls for an officer to closely examine factors that are related to a pursuit, to include: (1) road and environmental conditions, (2) population density, (3) vehicular and pedestrian traffic, (4) performance ability of police vehicle and its driver, (5) suspect-driver’s ability and vehicle, and (6) violation(s) leading up to the pursuit. The IACP policy provides operational guidelines for an officer in a pursuit. The policy stresses that once a pursuit operation commences, it should conform to established laws and regulations, that an officer will operate emergency equipment and communicate with other officers, that an officer shall have a backup unit or air surveillance, and that a supervisor will be involved throughout the pursuit. With regard to pursuit-stopping tactics such as roadblocks and spike strips, the IACP emphasizes that they must be governed by an agency’s policy and deployed in a safe manner.

The IACP stresses that a pursuing officer or a supervisor may terminate a pursuit when the risks of the pursuit outweigh the benefits of its continuance or the suspect can be apprehended at a later date. The IACP recommends that an officer complete a written report of a pursuit and that the department immediately review it. Finally, the IACP suggests that all department pursuit activities be periodically analyzed and that adjustments to a department’s policy and procedures be completed.

Legislative Response to Pursuits

In an attempt to deter people from fleeing the police and decrease incidents of highspeed pursuits, state legislatures make the act a crime or increase the criminal penalty for the act. For example, in recognition of the substantial risk that high-speed pursuits represent to persons and property, the Kentucky legislature enacted into law a felony charge for fleeing or evading police in a motor vehicle (Kentucky Revised Statutes 2005). Texas’s customary penalty for evading a police officer is a misdemeanor (Texas Penal Code 2005). However, a suspect who uses a vehicle in flight is charged with a felony. If the person charged has a previous conviction for fleeing from the police, the penalty jumps to the next felony level.

California’s Senate Bill 719 (2005) is comprehensive legislation addressing police pursuits. It amends a number of pursuit-related codes (for example, government, penal, and vehicle) and deals with victim compensation, criminal penalties, pursuit policy, public awareness, and pursuit reporting. Some of the provisions of the bill are the following:

• An innocent victim suffering injury or death as a result of a suspect fleeing from the police is entitled to compensation from the state’s crime victim restitution fund.

• All police agencies must require their officers to undergo regular and periodic pursuit training.

• The state’s driver’s license examination will include a question on the risks and punishments associated with pursuits.

• All imprisonment terms for convictions for fleeing from the police are increased.

• State traffic safety programs will conduct police pursuit public awareness campaigns.

• All police agencies will provide comprehensive pursuit data to the California Highway Patrol within thirty days of any pursuits.

The federal government recognizes that police pursuits are a threat to the public and the police. In 1997, Congress introduced legislation to create a national program addressing police pursuits. The bill, entitled ”National Police Pursuit Policy Act of 1998,” calls for a mandatory minimum prison sentence of not less than three months for a motorist convicted of fleeing the police. Additionally, the bill recommends that a state seize an offender’s vehicle. Finally, the bill directs each police agency across the nation to develop a comprehensive pursuit policy, track and document all pursuits, complete an annual pursuit report, and provide training for officers expected to engage in pursuits.

Pursuit Training

Throughout their careers, police officers must respond to a variety of situations and incidents. How a police officer responds to these incidents is largely dictated by an officer’s training. Most police departments provide training to their officers through a basic academy program and an in-service training program. Two broad types of training offered in both of these programs are skills training and knowledge training. Skills training typically involves learning how to effectively apply one or more of the five senses in a police situation. How to safely search a building, how to accurately shoot a gun, and how to quickly put handcuffs on a suspect are some of the skills an officer learns. Additionally, an officer must be knowledgeable about laws and municipal ordinances, agency policies, and cultural diversity.

Much of an officer’s training requires the blending of skills and knowledge. For example, in addition to an officer learning how to accurately fire a handgun, he must know when the law and policy permit him to do so. Putting handcuffs on a suspect requires that an officer understand the legal justifications for detaining or arresting a citizen. The same holds for pursuit training. Pursuit driving requires a high level of skills training. Additionally, pursuit driving requires that an officer know when to initiate and continue a pursuit according to state law and department policy (Hill 2002).

Initial pursuit driving and policy training typically occurs at a police academy. However, agencies have significant variation in how much training they offer to their officers. Indianapolis police undergo forty hours of initial vehicle and pursuit training (Trotter, Spalding, and Nichols 2005). Minnesota requires at least a seven-hour course in an officer’s initial training (Minnesota Statutes 2005). In a national survey, Alpert (1997) notes that the average amount of time dedicated to initial pursuit training is less than fourteen hours. The Pursuit Measurement Task Force (NLECTC 1998) recognizes that it is most likely that smaller agencies skimp on pursuit training due to staffing and budget limitations.

As previously noted, pursuit driving tactics and policies continue to evolve. The dynamic nature of pursuit response requires that police officers be kept abreast of these changes. Police in-service training—training that police departments mandate for their veteran officers—is the best venue for introducing new skill sets and policy updates. However, as with initial training, there is variation from department to department. For example, California requires that its officers participate in regular and periodic training in pursuit practices, policies, and tactics (California Assembly 2005). Minnesota (2005) mandates at least eight hours of training every three years for every full-and part-time police officer employed by an agency. Although the Indianapolis Police Department has an updated pursuit policy, its officers have not been educated as to its contents or given refresher skills training (Trotter, Spalding, and Nichols 2005). The IACP (2004) maintains that all officers in a department assigned a police vehicle should undergo recurrent pursuit policy and tactics training.

Pursuit-Stopping Strategies and Tactics

Police depend on strategies and tactics to control or stop pursuits. One strategy that meets with success is the use of a helicopter. Alpert’s (1998) examination of two metropolitan police departments shows that a helicopter unit provides a number of valuable roles in pursuits. First, a helicopter unit provides immediate assessments of traffic congestion and hazards and environmental conditions. Second, a helicopter can surreptitiously follow a fleeing vehicle, enabling patrol to back off and relieve the pressure of “pushing” a suspect. A helicopter unit increases the likelihood of apprehension should a suspect abandon the vehicle and flee on foot. A helicopter unit also brings powerful observation equipment to a pursuit, including a high-power spotlight and forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR) to assist with locating suspects and vehicles in low-light situations. A helicopter unit equipped with a video camera can record pursuits. Video records can provide evidence for criminal and civil lawsuits that invariably result from pursuits. Finally, a helicopter provides a significant psychological advantage in a pursuit in that a fleeing suspect ceases fleeing once he realizes he cannot escape the “eye in the sky.” There are several pursuit-stopping tactics that utilize mobile patrol vehicles. Police use their patrol vehicles to either corral or strike a fleeing vehicle (Eisenberg and Fitzpatrick 1996; Eric 2004; NLECTC 1998). Channelizing, boxing-in, and vehicle intercept are three common mobile

corralling techniques, where several police vehicles strategically surround a target vehicle, blockade it from all sides, and either stop it from fleeing or bring its movement to a halt. Corralling techniques can be safely implemented at low speeds but are difficult to execute at high speeds.

Ramming and the pursuit intervention technique also use mobile patrol vehicles. In ramming, police strike a fleeing vehicle with a police vehicle. The goal of ramming is to disable the vehicle to the point that it can no longer operate and/or to knock it from its fleeing path. Ramming can be dangerous and injurious; it may constitute an unreasonable seizure should a suspect-driver be injured or killed. Rammed and ramming vehicles can become uncontrollable projectiles that can strike innocent third parties. The pursuit intervention technique (PIT) is a controlled contact technique (Eric 2004; Yates 2005). In the PIT, a police officer aligns his or her vehicle’s front bumper next to the suspect vehicle’s rear wheel, then steers into it. Upon contact, the rear wheels lose their grip on the roadway and the vehicle goes into a spin, which leads to the vehicle’s engine shutting down and the vehicle stopping. The PIT is used at low speeds, and damage to a police vehicle and suspect vehicle are minimal.

A roadblock is a static technique in which the police preposition police vehicles (or other vehicles) across the pursuit roadway in an attempt to get the suspect-driver to cease fleeing. Roadblocks not clearly visible or without an escape route may violate the Fourth Amendment’s unreasonable seizure clause.

Pursuit-Stopping Technology

Pursuit-stopping technology refers to equipment and devices designed to halt the movement of a fleeing vehicle either by disabling the vehicle or interfering with the suspect’s ability to operate the vehicle. The NLECTC groups these technologies into five categories: electrical, chemical, sensory, cooperative, and mechanical.

Electrical technology targets the fleeing vehicle’s electronic operating systems (for example, charging, ignition, or computers) by interfering with their operation. This experimental technology is subdivided into three approaches: direct injection, radiative, and plasma beam. In the direct injection application, the police fire an electrical charge into a fleeing vehicle. Once activated, the resulting electrical charge damages the fleeing vehicle’s electronics and the vehicle stops. A radiative system uses microwaves to interfere with or destroy a fleeing vehicle’s electronics. Unlike direct injection, this system does not require direct contact with the fleeing vehicle. The plasma beam system focuses high-voltage radio frequency waves on the target vehicle, with the directed energy interfering with or destroying the fleeing vehicle’s electrical components.

The chemical stopping system is another experimental system. In this system, the police shoot a compound at the fleeing vehicle. The substance enters the vehicle’s air intake and alters the fuel/air mixture to the point that the engine quits.

Pursuit management using sensory technology comes from two approaches. In the first, police use light and sound technology to provide innocent citizens with advance warning of an approaching pursuit so that they can take evasive action (for example, pull over, clear an intersection). Technology that disrupts the fleeing suspect’s senses is the second sensory approach. Use of bright lights and sonic waves to disorient and bring discomfort to a fleeing suspect are examples of this technology. Operation of these should cause a suspect to stop in an effort to cancel the uncomfortable stimulus.

A cooperative stopping system is vehicle-installed technology that permits the police to track or remotely shut down a vehicle. Tracking systems such as Lo and OnStar permit the police equipped with tracking devices to locate stolen vehicles.

With these devices, police can track a stolen or wanted vehicle from a distance without initiating a pursuit. Another cooperative system uses a laser to shut off the target vehicle’s engine or fuel supply. A cooperative system must be preinstalled, and the police must know it is present.

Currently, the police are using several mechanical stopping devices. Two of the devices are the Stinger Spike Strip and the Stop Stick. These devices are portable platforms that are armed with numerous hollow metal spikes. An officer positioned a safe distance ahead of the pursuit deploys the device across the roadway in front of the pursued vehicle. Upon hitting the strip, one or more of the spikes punctures and deflates the vehicle’s tires. The officer deploying the strip withdraws it before the pursuing vehicles cross it. The expectation is that a suspect will stop the disabled vehicle. Spike strips are limited to the width of two lanes of traffic; if the roadway is wider (for example, an interstate highway), additional strips are needed or a driver-suspect will be able to drive around targeted lanes. Additionally, since an officer has to deploy the strip in front of a pursuit, it leaves an officer exposed to fleeing and pursuing vehicles. Despite their drawbacks, police have enjoyed success in stopping pursued vehicles with their use.

Another proposed mechanical device under consideration for pursuit termination is a net system. This device uses a rapidly deployed and anchored net housed in a specially designed “speed bump” to capture a fleeing vehicle. The net, while effective, requires a setup time of between one and two hours and is more appropriate for fixed traffic positions (for example, border checkpoints).

Pursuit Liability

Each state is expected to reasonably govern how its police officers conduct pursuits. Typically, states grant emergency driving exemptions and limited immunity to officers involved in pursuits. However, since a police pursuit may lead to significant property damage and/or death or injury to a person, a citizen may file a civil lawsuit against police officers, departments, and municipalities under state tort law. Generally, in a lawsuit, a state court considers the police’s need to immediately apprehend criminals for the protection of the public against their duty to protect the safety of all citizens during a police operation. However, a citizen’s success in a lawsuit hinges on the standard a state court applies to the pursuit actions of the police. Generally, if there is a “reckless disregard” or “gross negligence” on the part of the police, a state court will rule in the plaintiff’s favor.

For example, in City of Jackson v. Bris-ter (2003), the Mississippi Supreme Court held police liable when officers recklessly disregarded the safety of the public when they entered into a fatal pursuit with a nonviolent forgery suspect in violation of their department’s policy. Additionally, the court found fault with the officers because they failed to take basic precautions to prevent the pursuit. Rhode Island police also must not “recklessly disregard” the public safety in a pursuit. In Seide v. State of Rhode Island (2005), the state’s supreme court cited the police for failing to adhere to established policy during a pursuit of a stolen truck that concluded with a crash and an innocent citizen receiving serious disfiguring and crippling injuries.

The South Carolina standard for pursuit liability is “gross negligence” (Clark v. South Carolina Department of Public Safety 2005), as is North Carolina’s (Bul-lins v. Schmidt 1988). In Clark, the state’s supreme court agreed with the trial court’s finding that a police officer was “grossly negligent” when he initiated and continued a pursuit of a traffic violator. The violator crashed and killed an innocent motorist. In Bullins, North Carolina’s Supreme Court held that officers who engaged in an eighteen-mile pursuit with an intoxicated driver were not guilty of gross negligence when the suspect-driver struck an innocent person’s vehicle head-on, killing its driver.

Some states use a ”proximate cause” standard, where an officer’s pursuit actions may lead to a citizen being killed or injured. For example, in Meyer v. State of Nebraska (2002), a trooper’s thirty-seven-mile, high-speed pursuit of a suspect-driver suffering from a psychotic episode set off a series of events leading to the death of a female bystander. The Nebraska Supreme Court held that the trooper’s actions in the pursuit were a proximate cause of the accident.

Both federal law and the U.S. Constitution govern police pursuits. Police cannot violate a citizen’s rights as delineated in these two; otherwise, they can be sued. In order for an individual to sue the police for a pursuit-related injury or death, there must be an allegation of a civil rights violation under Title 42 of the U.S. Code, Section 1983 (Pipes and Pape 2001). In a Section 1983 lawsuit, a person typically alleges that the police action leading to an injury or death constituted an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment or that it was violative of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. To succeed with a Fourth Amendment lawsuit, a plaintiff must clearly demonstrate that the police’s actions to stop a fleeing vehicle were unreasonable. For example, in Brower v. County of Inyo (1989), the Supreme Court ruled that the police’s decision to stop a fleeing auto thief (Brower) by placing a tractor-trailer rig across a curved roadway constituted a seizure when he crashed into it and died. The Court held that a lower court was responsible for determining whether the seizure was unreasonable and whether the officers were liable.

Under the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of substantive due process, a state and its agents cannot “… deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law … .” Thus, a person injured or killed during a police pursuit may claim that a due process right was violated. However, in order to succeed in such a lawsuit, a person must show that the police’s actions meet the current ”shocks the conscience” standard. This standard supersedes the previous federal courts’ ”gross negligence” and “deliberate or reckless indifference” standards (Finarelli 1999). The Supreme Court established the ”shocks the conscience” standard for federal Fourteenth Amendment lawsuits in 1998 in County of Sacramento v. Lewis. The facts of Lewis follow.

In 1990, a deputy and a police officer were at a fight scene when they observed a motorcycle approaching at a high rate of speed. An eighteen-year-old and his sixteen-year-old passenger (Lewis) were on the motorcycle. The police officer directed the operator to stop. However, the operator did not and fled from the two officers. The officers pursued the fleeing motorcycle in their patrol vehicles. The suspect-driver committed numerous traffic violations (for example, speeding, running red lights) as he fled through a residential area. Approximately two minutes into the pursuit, the motorcycle skidded to a stop. The deputy’s patrol vehicle also skidded but did not come to a stop until after it had struck and killed the sixteen-year-old passenger.

Lewis’s parents sued the deputy, the sheriff’s department, and the county under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court noted that the suspect-driver’s lawless behavior led to an instinctive response from the deputy. Accordingly, it determined that the deputy did not enter into the pursuit with malice and with the intent to physically harm Lewis. His behavior, therefore, did not reach the ”shocks the conscience” standard required to succeed in a Section 1983 lawsuit. The ”shocks the conscience” standard is a high standard that may make Fourteenth Amendment lawsuits impossible (Urbonya 1998).


Police pursuits continue to be a significant source of concern for police, law enforcement agencies, lawmakers, and the general public. For the police, the dilemma is balancing the need to bring a lawbreaker into custody with the need to conduct the apprehension operation as safely as possible. There is no universal solution; it requires a conscientious and concerted effort on the part of the police, their departments, governments, courts, and researchers from the public and private sectors to develop and implement safe and reliable responses to fleeing vehicles.

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