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Los Angeles

Explanation for Fatal Chase Offered

LAPD: Officers were warning pedestrians of danger, officials said of the pursuit in which a girl died. Police panel meets to review policies.

June 05, 2002|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles police officers involved in a pursuit that indirectly led to the death of a young girl Saturday chased the reckless driver in part to alert pedestrians to the danger he posed, police officials said Tuesday.

The comments followed a review of LAPD pursuit policies by the Los Angeles Police Commission and supplied new details in the death of 4-year-old Evelyn Vargas on a busy downtown street in a chain-reaction accident.

Evelyn died after the stolen BMW sedan the suspect was driving hit a minivan, which slammed into the light post that fell and hit her. The suspect was hospitalized and is recovering from critical injuries suffered in the crash.

The LAPD is investigating the incident. The two officers involved, driver Thomas Lo, 37, a seven-year veteran, and Manuel Gonzalez, 26, a one-year veteran, have been given time off work and have been described by LAPD officials as distraught.

At a special hearing of the Police Commission on Tuesday, commissioners said they will consider whether to alter the department's pursuit policies. Police Commission President Rick J. Caruso and Interim Police Chief Martin Pomeroy offered public condolences to the girl's family. A City Council committee also plans to review police pursuits.

According to police officials, Officers Lo and Gonzalez encountered the suspect when he came speeding out of a downtown parking garage, tires squealing, as they were passing by in a patrol car. Fearing a collision, the officers swerved to avoid him, police said.

The officers then began trailing the BMW, initially without turning on their lights or siren. They called for backup, and learned that the car was stolen.

Whether the suspect knew that he was being tailed by police was unclear. But shortly, he drove the BMW onto a sidewalk and through a red light.

"It's possible he knew officers were behind him and made a crazy decision. Then the officers made a rational decision to try to stop him," said Cmdr. Gary Brennan.

It was then that the officers turned on the siren and the lights, and the pursuit began, police said. The suspect led the officers on a circuitous 1.3-mile route through downtown for about 2 minutes, hitting peak speeds of about 40 to 45 mph, police said.

At one point, the driver stopped and started to open the car door. But when the patrol car stopped behind him, he took off again, eventually running a red light at 6th and Spring streets and hitting the minivan, Brennan said. Suspected cocaine and drug paraphernalia were found in the car, he said.

In offering more details, LAPD officials were seeking to explain the officers' decision to chase a speeding car through a crowded shopping district.

The officers' conduct came under fire from at least one speaker at Tuesday's meeting: Stephany Yablow, daughter of an elderly couple seriously injured in a police pursuit in March, said she was "sickened" to hear of Saturday's death and urged the commission to revise the LAPD's pursuit policies.

"The LAPD is out of control," Yablow said, adding that the lives of her parents--both Holocaust survivors--had been shattered by the accident.

Department policy and state laws allow senior officers room for judgment in conducting pursuits. In this case, police officials contended that the perceived danger to pedestrians triggered the officers' response.

"He drove up on the sidewalk, and they [the officers] decided pedestrians were in danger," said Deputy Chief Margaret York. "They activated their lights in an attempt to warn pedestrians ....The officers were very concerned about pedestrian traffic."

The overall number of LAPD police pursuits has declined this year, said Deputy Chief David Doan. Although recent years have seen average rates of between 55 and 65 pursuits per month, the tally this year is about 30 per month, he said.

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