Santa Monica police officers are complaining that Chief James F. Keane's new pursuit policy is making it harder for them to catch crooks, rapists and child molesters.
Since September, police have been allowed to go into high-speed chases only when they are convinced that the suspect has used deadly force or may use deadly force.
One police officer calls the new guidelines "a non-pursuit policy."
Detective Shane Talbot, president of the 140-member Santa Monica Police Officers Assn., said the association views the pursuit policy as too restrictive.
"We can't pursue stolen cars, can't pursue burglars," he said. "We could not have pursued the Night Stalker. He was basically a prowler, and we know he stole cars."
Keane said: "The best argument I've had thrown at me is, 'What if it's the Night Stalker?' I told them, 'If you know it's the Night Stalker, you can chase him to Vegas.' The trouble is when we are in pursuit, everybody is the Night Stalker."
Keane, who said he issued the order to save lives of officers and others, calls the chase guidelines one of his most important decisions.
The new policy was drawn up after three police cars were destroyed and two officers seriously injured in accidents early this year. In one accident, an 18-year-old girl who was a passenger in a fleeing stolen car was killed.
Some Officers Not Happy
Nonetheless, some officers are not happy with the changes.
One sergeant who asked not to be identified said: "The new policy is so restrictive that unless you know a person has a gun or might use deadly force, you can't pursue him. If I'm going down the street and a woman says, 'My child has just been molested,' or, 'I've been raped,' if they (the suspects) took off and won't pull over, we can't chase them.
"The decision on the pursuit is ultimately up to the (supervising sergeant). We don't want that kind of responsibility," he said, adding that a supervisor is sometimes not at the scene of the chase.
"If we can't really tell what's going on, most of us feel that we don't want to take a chance. We will tell the guys to pack it in (terminate the pursuit)," the sergeant said.
To which Keane replied: "If they don't want the responsibility, they don't have to be supervisors. . . . They want the officer to screw up by himself."
An officer whose adrenalin is pumping is not able to make a cool-headed decision, Keane said. That is why the field supervisor must make the decision, he said.
Keane said that under Santa Monica's old pursuit policy, officers "could chase anybody. A shoplifter could grab a five-cent article, and we could chase him to Las Vegas at 120 m.p.h. We could chase anybody that ran."
"One problem we have," he said, "is that these officers grew up watching 'Matt Houston' and 'Adam 12.' They don't realize these are stunt drivers. They think they can do it. They can't. I think some of them grew up thinking they can drive a car 100 m.p.h."
The sergeant countered: "I don't think any of the guys feel that way at all, like they can do things they see on the "Dukes of Hazzard." They get paid to catch crooks. If anybody is going to take off, they want to catch them."
An officer who has nearly 10 years on the job and who also asked not to be identified, said, "It is a very prohibitive policy. It's very sad. If you live in Santa Monica and you surprise a burglar and the guy just (drives) off in a white van or pickup, the policeman has to just sit there and watch him drive away."
Officers said they are afraid that criminals will come to think of Santa Monica as a place where they can commit crimes without fear of pursuit.
"That did come to our mind," operations Capt. BillKing said, "but looking at research data we found that most of our traffic pursuits are dealing with traffic violations."
In Response to Inquiry
Keane said he was preparing the policy change when City Manager John Jalili inquired about it. Jalili said he was responding to inquiries from council members after an accident in which a police officer was nearly killed. Keane will review the policy after six months. The Santa Monica Police Officers Assn. will have an opportunity to suggest modifications.
"I think this is one of the biggest things I have done," Keane said. "I will have more officers going home to their families at night without injuries.
"I have been thinking along these lines for several years. The reason I didn't bite the bullet before is because of the very fact of what's happening. It would upset the troops.
"I feel good already. We haven't had a serious accident in months. I foresee every police department doing this. The chief of Anaheim tried to set up a policy (in the 1970s), but he got a lot of flak (and the policy was modified).
"The Long Beach police chief (William Ussery) told me, 'Hang in there.' " Long Beach limited pursuits in 1983.