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Limiting chases brings benefits, some policy say
by Don Thompson, Associated Press Writer
March 8, 2005
 
SACRAMENTO--State and local governments that have limited police pursuits have sharply cut innocent deaths, including in Los Angeles County where high-speed chases had become a staple of the nightly evening news, law enforcement officials said Wednesday.

California recorded 7,171 pursuits in 2003 resulting in 51 deaths, 18 of which were innocent bystanders, according to the most recent statistics from the California Highway Patrol and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The legal immunity that California uniquely grants police when pursuits go wrong has helped make the state by far the national leader in chases, injuries or deaths, said witnesses and legislators at a state Senate Public Safety Committee hearing.

Other law enforcement representatives, however, said police should not be held liable for damage caused by a driver who flees, even if the officer violates his department's own pursuit policy.

The answer, they said, is stiffer penalties for fleeing drivers and an education program that starts when teenagers first learn to drive.

But Donald Van Blaricom, retired chief of the Bellevue, Wash., police department, said there's "no police practice that is more dangerous to the average citizen than police pursuits."

He's an outspoken nationwide advocate for restricting pursuits to violent felons, ending chases for traffic infractions or stolen vehicles.

Los Angeles County adopted one of the nation's most restrictive pursuit policies in 1998, limiting chases to instances where there has been a felony crime committed, a misdemeanor crime involving a weapon, or suspected drunken drivers who are an obvious road hazard.

Before, deputies engaged in about 500 chases a year, a number that dropped by half since the policy was adopted, said Sgt. Wayne Bilowit, the department's legislative advocate. The number increased in the last year with deputies now patrolling more jurisdictions, but the percentage of chases resulting in collisions has dropped to historic lows, and there have been no chase-related fatalities since 1998.

Moreover, the policy has changed the "culture" of the department's chase mentality, Bilowit said. Now, 40 percent of chases are halted even though they fall within department guidelines, and half those decisions are made by the pursuing deputy.
"The deputies in the field, they get caught up in the adrenalin, they get caught up in the pursuit," Bilowit said. But after eight years living with the new policy, "If it is too dangerous, they are pulling out of the pursuit on their own."

State Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, who is pushing for change with "Kristie's Law," named after a 15-year-old innocent victim from Chico, contrasted California with Florida, which has among the most restrictive chase policies.

Florida had just one innocent bystander die the same year California had 18. No police officers have died in Florida chases the last seven years, while four officers died in California pursuits last year alone.

Yet Florida also adopted far stiffer penalties for fleeing, countered California Highway Patrol Capt. Scott Howland. Under California law, evading an officer and misusing a handicapped placard carry the same penalty _ and misusing the placard requires a higher bail.

California law enforcement associations are promoting legislation that would boost sentences and make it clear the fleeing driver _ not the police officer _ is liable if anyone else is injured or killed.

"When an officer makes a bad decision, it still is ultimately the suspect who's fleeing," said Howland, reflecting comments by other law enforcement organization representatives. "I don't feel law enforcement should be responsible for the actions of a criminal."

Van Blaricom, the retired Washington chief, said stiffer penalties won't deter drivers who flee in the heat of the moment. And he said California has an appropriate chase policy that is often violated because officers know they are immune from civil liability under a unique 1987 law.

"The real policy is to chase anybody that runs from you, because there are no consequences," Van Blaricom said.

Aanestad's effort to end that immunity died in a Senate committee last year, and law enforcement organizations said they would fight any similar attempt this year. Aanestad, Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and Public Safety Committee Chair Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, all said they will seek compromise legislation this year to help rein in innocent deaths.

 

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