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Cut to the Chase

Public fascination with high-speed police pursuits continues. But innocent people are sometimes killed or injured, fueling controversy over policies.

July 10, 1998|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fascination goes back almost a century. From the time motion was first captured on film, people have been transfixed by moving objects, and especially fast-moving ones.

"Movies, being movies, have always been obsessed with motion," said Leo Braudy, a film and culture historian.

And chases have a long history in films, from horse chases in old westerns, to the antics of the clumsy Keystone Kops, to the unfettered excesses of "The Blues Brothers."

With the increased use of helicopters by Los Angeles television crews, that fascination seems to have been transferred to high-speed car chases on the small screen.

TV viewers weaned on films that highlight violence and destruction can easily lose their perspective and see a car chase "as an aesthetic occasion," said Braudy, a history professor at USC.

But those pursuits are harsh reality for the police officers involved, who often must make split-second decisions on when to initiate a chase and how to conduct it. Most chases end with successful apprehensions and no injuries to suspects, police or others. But to critics of high-speed chases, the risks involved are simply not worth it. Tragic incidents nationwide and locally have left concern and controversy in their wake.

"One serious accident can wipe out a whole family," said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor and an expert in the field.

Nationwide, about one-fourth of the 1,810 people who died in pursuit-related incidents over a five-year period were innocent third parties. In California in the last four years, more than a third of pursuit-related fatalities were third parties, either vehicle occupants or pedestrians.

In a recent study, Alpert found that nearly half of police departments surveyed nationwide had modified their pursuit policies in the last two years. Nearly 90% of them made the policies more restrictive.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which was not included in Alpert's study, is one agency that has limited its police pursuits mostly to serious crimes. Sheriff's officials say the numbers of pursuits and injuries associated with car chases have dropped since the policy went into effect. The Los Angeles Police Department, which some have criticized as being too aggressive in car chases, has made no substantive changes in its policy in recent years.

The controversy over vehicle pursuits boils down to a weighing of benefits and risks--benefits in apprehending dangerous drivers and fleeing felons versus the risks of injury or death.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been in the forefront in calling for caution in car chases.

"We don't say all police pursuits should be abandoned, but [departments] must adopt policies that protect innocent bystanders," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.

The ACLU and others want to limit chases to cases involving known dangerous criminals and to ban high-speed pursuits for traffic infractions or other relatively minor violations.

Law enforcement authorities, however, say police officers must be given latitude to make on-the-spot decisions.

"The bottom line is: Bad guys run because they have done something wrong," said Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Gregory P. Orland. "The majority of those who flee [police] are wanted for serious felonies to begin with."

With a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that appears to virtually shield California police officers and their departments from damage suits arising from pursuit-related accidents, some observers fear chases will become even more common.

"You will see a lot more pursuits, injuries and death," said Alpert.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May made it extremely difficult for those injured as a result of high-speed pursuits to argue in federal courts that their civil rights were violated.

The justices ruled that police officers do not violate a citizen's right to due process, even in the case of "deliberate or reckless indifference to life," if they cause an accident while performing their duties.

The case arose from a 1996 incident in Sacramento in which a teenager riding on the back of a fleeing motorcycle fell and was killed when struck by a deputy's car.

Under California laws, officers are not liable for pursuit-related damages as long as they did not intentionally cause injuries, and agencies are immune if they have guidelines in place that clearly state when chases should be initiated and terminated.

California has consistently led the nation in the number of pursuit-related deaths. According to preliminary numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 31 deaths in the state attributed to police chases last year. Texas and New York, the next most populous states, combined for 12 such fatalities in the same period.

Those statistics are illustrated by the victims in several high-profile incidents that made headlines in Southern California. They include:

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