Torrance police are investigating to determine if an officer was driving recklessly last week when he chased a motorcyclist with an invalid registration and had an accident that destroyed three vehicles and injured four people, including himself.
The motorcyclist, who was not involved in the accident and escaped, is nonetheless considered at fault in the mishap and is being sought for felony hit-and-run, said Police Agent Mark Sturgeon of Redondo Beach, where the accident occurred.
Three of the injured were treated and released. The fourth was reported in good condition.
The chase is the second pursuit by Torrance police officers this year.
"We try, as a philosophy, to discourage pursuits," said Torrance Police Lt. Larry Robinson. "When the adrenalin is pumping that high in a pursuit situation, caution has to be uppermost."
James T. Fox, an attorney for accident victim Daniel Shanks, questioned the wisdom of a police pursuit policy that permits chases for minor infractions such as a lapsed vehicle registration.
"It is foreseeable that you are going to endanger other motorists," Fox said.
The attorney added that his client "is lucky to be alive. Somebody up there likes him." Shanks' 1981 Datsun pick-up truck was struck by the police car and flipped over, Fox said. He said Shanks is considering a lawsuit.
The chase began about 1:40 p.m. Monday.
Torrance Police Officer Tim Pappas, 24, was cruising the Hollywood Riviera section of Torrance and nearby Redondo Beach, on the lookout for a pit bull dog on the loose, according to Robinson. The lieutenant said that Torrance and Redondo Beach have a mutual aid agreement allowing police officers to cross city boundaries.
Pappas never found the dog.
Driving in the 200 block of Avenue I in Redondo Beach, the officer noticed a motorcycle whose registration had lapsed and signaled for the driver to pull over.
"It appeared that the bike was going to stop and comply when it suddenly accelerated," Robinson said.
The two vehicles went north on Catalina Avenue, east on Torrance Boulevard, southeast on Camino Real to Knob Hill Avenue, where they turned west down a steep incline.
Honey Huttenhoff, 26, a Los Angeles Times advertising account executive, was at the intersection and saw the patrol car.
"He had his siren on and he was flying," she said. "He flew down Knob Hill."
The accident occurred at Knob Hill and Prospect Avenue, just west of Torrance.
One of the drivers whose car was hit, Clara Rose, 70, of Hawthorne, was driving south on Prospect. With her was Lawrence Wheeler, 71, of Redondo Beach.
"I saw the fellow on the motorcycle go by lickety-split. And here came the police car going as fast as it could go," Rose said. "I stopped when I saw the police car."
Driving north on Prospect was Shanks, who is the son in Bob Shanks and Son Termite Control Inc. His attorney provided the following details:
Shanks had his windows up. The radio was on. The traffic light was green. A house blocked Shanks' view of Knob Hill to the east, from which the chase was approaching.
Shanks, who was approaching the intersection, saw the motorcycle whiz through the red light. He slowed down but kept on through the intersection.
"He had no warning that the officer was going to go through the intersection," Fox said.
Pappas' patrol car slammed into Shanks' pickup, flipping it. The truck crashed into Rose's car and came to rest on its side. Shanks was wearing a seat belt with shoulder harness.
"Had it not been for the seat belt, he probably would have been crushed," Fox said.
Shanks, who suffered bruises, cuts and internal injuries, was reported in good condition last week at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance. Pappas, Rose and Wheeler were treated and released the day of the accident.
No Estimate of Speed
Redondo Beach investigators have not made estimates of Pappas' speed, but Agent Sturgeon said he could "safely say" that it was faster than 10 to 15 miles per hour and slower than 50 miles per hour. Fox said, "I have to believe that the speed was over 40 miles per hour."
Pappas could not be reached for comment.
The speed limit on Knob Hill in the block east of Prospect is 25 miles per hour during school hours. The block is in the school zone for the Alta Vista Elementary School.
Sturgeon said the California Vehicle Code states that emergency vehicles that are flashing red lights and sounding sirens are not bound by the normal rules of the road.
Nevertheless, he said, the state code also says that the exemption does not give officers the right to endanger other people or vehicles or drive recklessly.
"This officer was somewhere in the gray area," Sturgeon said.
Redondo Beach Police will turn over their report on the accident to Torrance Police, Robinson said. He said the Torrance police investigation is standard practice when an officer is involved in an accident.
Torrance is self-insured. The city will have to pay for the patrol car and any judgments or settlements arising from the accident.
He said the Torrance department's policy on chases, like those of nearby departments, leaves discretion to officers.
"If we said no pursuits are allowed, we would allow criminals to escape unapprehended. We don't know what the motorcyclist has done, maybe nothing more than (failing to renew) registration, maybe something worse," he said.
Officers must maintain radio contact with superiors at headquarters, who can call off a chase. Pappas was in contact with headquarters during the chase.
In 1985, Torrance police had 14 pursuits, which resulted in 13 captures, no accidents involving police vehicles and one accident involving another car. In 1986, Torrance police have been involved in two chases, including the Pappas incident. The other one, in February, did not result in an accident.