Art no longer imitates life when it comes to that standard television police scene in which a brave officer races after a bad guy fleeing down an alleyway: In Los Angeles County and other parts of the nation, individual cops are now discouraged from chasing many suspects who run.
Stung over the years by the risky violence that often results when officer and suspect finally come face to face, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies are instead encouraged to radio for backup so others can help surround and capture the suspect. Deputies still may follow suspects on foot, but they must keep a safe distance until reinforcements arrive.
Police agencies across the country have enacted new policies to deal with when and how officers should pursue suspects who run. The Sheriff's Department policy, enacted in 2004, is one of the most restrictive in the nation. The policy states that deputies cannot confront suspects alone and should not split from their partners during foot pursuits.
The issue is particularly important because most deputies work in one-person patrol cars.
Many deputies say they believe the policy is too restrictive and prevents them from doing their jobs: arresting criminals. They say some suspects know that deputies won't chase them if they run and are brazenly taking advantage of the policy.
Sheriff's Deputy George Hofstetter, who has worked patrol assignments in Compton and Lakewood during more than 17 years with the department, said it's difficult for deputies to allow suspects to run from them.
"If you see somebody you believe to be a bad guy and they take off running, it's almost an instinct to chase after them. A lot of times you're not thinking, 'Am I in policy or out of policy?' " said Hofstetter, a director with the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, a union that has defended deputies disciplined for conduct during foot chases.
"It's one of those things that becomes ingrained in you: to catch the person and take them to jail."
A 2003 case
L.A. County Deputy Brian Bishop had faced the situation so many times it seemed routine.
Early one morning in May 2003, he switched on the lights atop his patrol car and pulled behind a Chevrolet Beretta. He followed it through a few sharp turns, then watched it slide into a curb and stall.
Bishop and his partner, Deputy William Parsons, stepped out of their car and ran toward the disabled vehicle. That's when the driver, Robert Dingman, bolted. Bishop took off after him.
Clutching his gun in his right hand, the deputy ran through the darkness until the suspect slipped and fell onto a driveway. When Bishop arrived, Dingman lunged toward him, so the deputy fired a single shot, killing him, Bishop said.
The usual shooting investigations followed, and Bishop was found to have fired in self-defense even though Dingman was unarmed.
But the Sheriff's Department faulted Bishop for giving chase, confronting the suspect alone and leaving Parsons, who was training as a patrol deputy, alone with Dingman's female passenger. Bishop was suspended for two days without pay.
"We're going to let people run away who should be taken into custody, and we'll never know who they end up victimizing," Bishop said. "It's frustrating and it's sad because it's the criminals who are winning now."
Police departments throughout the country have adopted policies that guide officers' responses when a suspect runs. Many of them caution officers to consider the danger of foot chases, encourage them to consider alternatives to chasing the suspects and advise them when to stop a pursuit, such as when they lose radio communication or lose sight of the suspect.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department policy is particularly restrictive because it advises deputies that they should not attempt to confront a suspect by themselves.
At the Los Angeles Police Department, officers are discouraged from splitting from their partners during pursuits but are not prohibited from confronting suspects while alone, said Lt. Paul Vernon, a department spokesman. They are advised not to chase suspects who are believed to be carrying firearms, Vernon said.
Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said Orange County deputies are allowed to use their best judgment during pursuits and are trained to avoid situations that could endanger themselves or the public. Quint said he thought the disciplining of Bishop was "ridiculous."
"Come on, this is part of police work. You've got to chase bad guys," Quint said. "What do they want us to do? Nothing? In L.A., that's almost what it's coming down to."
Merrick Bobb, an attorney who monitors the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department under a contract with the Board of Supervisors, has long criticized foot chases and the dangers they create for both deputies and suspects.
Nearly one-fourth of the department's officer-involved shootings between 1997 and 2002 came during or at the end of foot chases, Bobb noted in a report that criticized such pursuits.