Police chief doesn't like pursuit law

By LARRY MITCHELL - Staff Writer

March 21, 2004 -- In an interview this week, Chico Police Chief Bruce Hagerty defended his officers' pursuit of a wanted man through city streets recently and said proposed legislation to restrict pursuits was misguided.

"We had a lot of information about this guy and the need to put him in jail," Hagerty said, referring to the pursuit and arrest of Robert LaMance, 42, of Chico on March 13.

As for Senate Bill 1866 called Kristie's Law, after a Chico teen who died as the result of a pursuit two years ago the chief said, "(it) is not a good bill. It will be vigorously fought on every level. It creates too much liability."

The bill, authored by state Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, would expose cities and counties to potential lawsuits if their police agencies failed to adopt and follow a standard minimum policy on pursuits.

At the heart of the standard minimum policy is the idea police could only pursue if there was immediate danger the fleeing driver would injure or kill someone. Otherwise, Aanestad argues, officers create unnecessary danger to the public by initiating a pursuit. Unless there's immediate danger of violence, the prudent thing to do is to wait and try to arrest the suspect later, he says.

Asked if he thought the pursuit of LaMance would have met the criteria of Aanestad's bill, Hagerty said he was certain it would have.

On the face of it, that might not seem to be the case.

According to reports the Enterprise-Record received from police on March 13, LaMance was wanted on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.

Officers learned he was at the home of some friends on the 1400 block of Chestnut Street, and at about 11:30 a.m. that Saturday, they were setting up a stakeout there when the suspect appeared, got in his pickup and drove off. Officers pursued him along Park Avenue and then through residential areas at speeds up to 40 mph, police said. At one point, the suspect drove the wrong way on one-way West Ninth Street. He eventually drove into an orchard and then onto the railroad right of way, where his pickup became disabled. He was caught after he tried to continue his escape on a bicycle.

On Friday, LaMance was still in the Butte County Jail, held on $215,000 bail and charged with evading police, assault with a deadly weapon, making criminal threats and domestic violence.

A preliminary hearing is to be held March 29 for LaMance, who is well-known to area police and has served prison time more than once, according to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

"The public never really knows what we know about a situation," Hagerty said, adding "it's never as simple" as what might be written in a newspaper account.

"We believe (LaMance) was a danger to people or a person" and that "based on his actions," he needed to be arrested as soon as possible, Hagerty said.

Hagerty said he saw a number of serious flaws in Aanestad's bill, adding he sent the senator a letter, detailing them. The bill's "immediate risk" element would require officers to have a crystal ball so they could make accurate predictions, he said.

The chief predicted if the bill becomes law, in its current form, no officers would ever pursue for any reason because of the liability they could incur.

"We believe (LaMance) was a danger to people or a person" and that "based on his actions," he needed to be arrested as soon as possible, Hagerty said.

Hagerty said he saw a number of serious flaws in Aanestad's bill, adding he sent the senator a letter, detailing them. The bill's "immediate risk" element would require officers to have a crystal ball so they could make accurate predictions, he said.

The chief predicted if the bill becomes law, in its current form, no officers would ever pursue for any reason because of the liability they could incur.

Ramsey, too, said he strongly opposes the bill. He asked how police can be expected to predict whether a fleeing criminal will hurt or kill someone. "I think police restrain themselves quite a bit already," he said. "It's a dangerous world out there. Officers are trying to make the best decisions they can."

Jim Phillips of Winter Park, Fla., a crusader for restrictive police-pursuit policies, has a far different take on Kristie's Law. He said the measure has some weak points that need to be fixed to ensure police follow the intended policy.

In December of 2001, Phillips' 20-year-old daughter, Sarah, died after a vehicle sheriff's deputies were chasing crashed into the back of her car. He and his wife, Patti, filed suit. As part of the settlement, the Orange County Sheriff agreed to review and possibly change the department's pursuit policy.

A review committee was established with Phillips as a member. Last fall, the Orange County Sheriff's Department, with about 1,300 sworn officers, adopted a policy permitting pursuits only for certain serious crimes. And earlier this year, in Orlando, a city in Orange County with about 700,000 residents, the police department adopted a restrictive pursuit policy.

Phillips said he hopes to persuade other police agencies in Florida to adopt similar policies. Such policies are being adopted by departments in various parts of the country, he added. He and others hope to foster the trend toward restricting pursuits nationwide.

He's met plenty of resistance from law-enforcement authorities, but their arguments don't stand up, Phillips said. "If you can show them the statistics and the logic, they come right on board."

Phillips said he's studied and learned a lot about pursuits since his daughter's death. While reform has come in many places, he said, for some reason, there is a lot of resistance to change in California.

Aanestad's bill is slated to have its first hearing in the state Senate next month.

Copyrighted article reprinted with permission.

Candy Priano's comments: It's interesting how both Chief Bruce Hagerty and Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey avoid at all cost discussing the deadly chase that killed Kristie Priano. Instead the focus is on another chase that did not result in the death of an innocent victim and the fleeing suspect in that chase was indeed more dangerous than the teenage girl who took her mother's car without permission and plowed into our van, killing Kristie. When talking to Mark Priano about how he would charge the teenage girl, Ramsey stated to Mark that the charges would not be that severe. Ramsey seemed annoyed when Mark expressed that it was pretty obvious that there would be no justice for Kristie. Therein lies the problem. No one knew what to do with the girl because her original crime was that she took her mother's car without permission. I wonder if Ramsey's and Hagerty's comments would have been different if it had been their innocent daughter killed in this unnecessary pursuit. Victims of pursuit, killed and permanently injured, are "acceptable collateral damage."


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