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Even if California's State law governing police pursuits says otherwise ...

Law enforcement agencies and their officers
must lead with accountability

by Candy Priano
California has a unique law that grants law enforcement agencies blanket immunity from liability, if they simply adopt a pursuit policy. THEY DO NOT HAVE TO FOLLOW THE POLICY, just have one on the books. At this point in time, this unique law that does not put public safety first is untouchable. (See Vehicle Code Section 17000-17004.7)

Jim Phillips, president of PursuitWatch.org, states that "Blanket immunity is untouchable because California Law Enforcement is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state. Additionally, the endorsement of political candidates by Law Enforcement is a very important element in any campaign. California Law Enforcement would like to frame the whole immunity issue into the simplistic logic of 'If the bad guys had not run, none of this would have happened.' PERIOD. While this is certainly true, it ignores the complexity of pursuits and prevents any rational approach to making them safer and less costly. The scandalous position of California Law Enforcement is that they are powerless to do anything to prevent pursuit deaths and injuries and that is exactly what they do -- nothing."

Kristie's Law, Senate Bill 718, is part of the answer. Kristie's Law is a statewide -- rather than an agency-by-agency -- pursuit policy that restricts chases, allowing officers to chase only violent felons. However, until California lifts blanket immunity, Californians will never know if officers are following their pursuit policy. What else can we do but wonder? Can you think of any other public-safety priority where thoughtful policy is developed, adopted, and then legally ignored? All other law enforcement policies require accountability.

California's police agencies say officers always follow their pursuit policies, but I know from my own experience -- and other accounts of deadly pursuits -- that this is not true. Without accountability, even a restrictive statewide policy may not go far enough in protecting the public, but it is a start in the right direction.

Kristie's Law is similar to the Los Angeles Police Department's pursuit policy. In January 2003, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton made these comments to officers about police pursuit policy in his jurisdiction: "The most significant change is simply this: You can't pursue if the initial contact is for an infraction only. I am not saying we are not going to do our job. If someone breaks the law, we are still committed to apprehending that person. However, we do not want to do it in a way that jeopardizes your safety or the public's. There is an old adage: 'The end does not justify the means.'"

An AP Wire Service story published in 2003 reported the following information: Los Angeles, which had become synonymous with the televised chase, reported more chases than any other major city -- until it prohibited pursuits for minor traffic offenses in 2002. The number of chases dropped by 62 percent, injuries to bystanders dropped 78 percent, injuries to suspects dropped 58 percent and injuries to police dropped about 33 percent. Boston, Chicago, Miami and Seattle are among other major cities that have adopted similar policies with similar success, along with Fresno and Orange County in California, according to Aanestad's survey.

A Ventura County Star Editorial, supporting Kristie's Law and its statewide pursuit policy, states that revised pursuit policies can significantly lower the number of deaths and injuries, saving families immeasurable grief. That has been demonstrated most notably by the Los Angeles Police Department, which banned pursuits for minor infractions in 2003, after an infant boy's arm was severed in a crash resulting from a high-speed police chase in December 2002. The Los Angeles Police Department has since noted a substantial drop in police and bystander injuries.

Other statistics around the nation show that the adoption of more restrictive pursuit policy decreases the number of high-speed chases, decreases the number of innocent victims killed, AND DOES NOT in fact increase the number of suspects who flee, says Phillips.

In 2004 the Orlando Florida Police Department adopted the most restrictive pursuit policy in the United States where they only chase for violent forcible felonies. A one-year review of the results of the policy change showed that Orlando Florida officers attempted 40,460 traffic stops. 40,353 of these motorists obeyed the officers order to stop and 107 fled. Of the 107 that fled OPD officers pursued 9.

Reported felonies in Orlando actually declined slightly from 2003 to 2004 even though the population increased by more than 3 percent. For more information on the success of this Orlando Florida's restrictive pursuit policy, read the full story in The Orlando Sentinel.

"When a suspect flees, it is the police officer who we depend upon to make the critical life and death decisions that affect public safety, not the fleeing suspect!" Phillips says. "Let's help them make safe decisions by working on a more effective pursuit policy."

Definitely, it is the police, out of necessity, that we must rely on to protect and serve all of us. Pursuit is a dangerous tactic that must be used as a last resort, not the first. Kristie, was killed in a high-speed chase at night in a residential neighborhood. Yes, Kristie was killed because a teenage girl fled, and this girl is responsible for Kristie's death. In addition to the actions of the teenager, the Chico Police Department's pursuit policy is very discretionary, leaving many aspects of a chase up to the officer discretion. Also, the Chico officers violated their own agency's pursuit policy multiple times during this unnecessary and deadly chase of a teenager who had taken her mother's car without permission. At least with Kristie's Law, we can correct policies that do not put public safety first. To read a fact-based analysis of Chico's deadly chase, click here.

In another chase, an innocent woman, Mariline Sacks, was killed March 4, 2004 in San Francisco, and it too was another non-policy pursuit according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle. In February 2001, a mother, Bernice Martinez, was picking up her teenage daughters, Ashley and Christina, and their girl friend, Desiree Guzman, from a Stockton high school. All four were killed in the school zone as police chased a schoolmate. To read about other victims of pursuit, click here.

Geoffrey Alpert, Chairman of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina, is a nationally recognized expert on police pursuits and use of force. He says, "While you cannot completely restrict police pursuits, they should be reserved for suspects who have committed violent felonies."

According to Alpert, the policy standards applied to the evaluation of a pursuit as well as to the decision to continue a pursuit needs to include the following three questions:

1. If the pursuit were to result in injury or death, would a reasonable person understand why the pursuit occurred or was necessary?

2. Is the need to immediately catch the suspect more important than the risk created by the pursuit?

3. Do the dangers created by the pursuit exceed the dangers posed by letting the perpetrator escape?

Kristie's Law to require a statewide restrictive pursuit policy will save lives and is a step in the right direction for California.

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