Saturday, July 2, 2005 -- When you bury a child, your life is forever altered. You spend holidays and birthdays kneeling beside a cold, engraved marker remembering warm hugs and precious smiles.
That's how it is for me.
One minute, my Kristie was a 15-year-old honor student laughing with her brother in the back of our van as we drove to her high-school basketball game. The next, she was one of hundreds killed each year across the nation in high-speed police chases. Nearly one-third are innocent victims.
A fleeing teenager plowed into our van. She had taken her mother's car without permission. Officers knew her identity and disregarded their own chase policy, continuing this pursuit through a poorly lit residential neighborhood.
Six months later, I started searching for answers. I learned that Kristie didn't need to die to keep others safe. In fact, the fleeing teen went home with her mother that night, while a neurosurgeon told me to pray for a miracle.
Today I pray for our state legislators.
I am the sponsor of Kristie's Law, legislation proposed by state Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley. Kristie's Law would allow police chases to pursue violent felons only. Authorities would not be permitted to engage in highly dangerous, often deadly, pursuits merely to catch minor offenders.
Law-enforcement leaders throughout the country recognize that many chases are unnecessary since most suspects can be caught in other ways and are not worth the danger they present to officers and bystanders. Wide-open pursuit policies with no accountability mean more chases, more crashes, and more deaths. (Source: The Indianapolis Star )
I knew it would be tough to change California's outdated and dangerous police pursuit practices. But now it has just become tougher: Law enforcement's meaningless alternative to Kristie's Law, Senate Bill 719, is sailing through the state Legislature.
Our legislators sometimes pass laws that do nothing. This bill falls into that category. It contains legislative findings concerning the dangers of pursuits, but no language to limit the dangers.
State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, the bill's author, says the legislation would provide restitution to victims' families for funeral and burial expenses. But victims' families already receive state funds to cover these expenses.
Supporters also claim that the bill would increase penalties. But the "enhanced" penalties that would be imposed for fleeing as a misdemeanor are a major disappointment. Officers are adamant -- and rightfully so -- that fleeing should be a felony with mandatory prison time. Instead, Romero's bill only allows for six months to three years of additional jail time -- and that's not mandatory. An officer or innocent victim must die for an offender to receive a mere four, six or 10 years in prison.
[Note: Penalties for fleeing without injury or death to someone were decreased in an Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing on August 25, 2005. Also, the penalties for killing an innocent victim or police officer usually fall under vehicular manslaughter or 2nd degree murder, so, as suspected, these penalties are useless. Why is law enforcement embracing a bill that does nothing to enhance penalties?]
Another missing piece is stricter penalties for juveniles, who flee from police in increasing numbers.
SB 719 would require law-enforcement departments to adopt a pursuit policy, but this reform is mostly symbolic. Departments must already adopt a pursuit policy to receive blanket immunity from civil liability. Romero's bill retains California's unique injustice of immunity even when the policy is not followed. It states only that departments must adopt, distribute and have officers read the policy. This reform implies that officers currently are not even reading their policy!
Where is the change? Where is the accountability?
Can you think of any other public safety priority where thoughtful policy is developed, adopted, and then legally ignored?
And while Romero's bill would create a statewide reporting system for police pursuits, all review and reporting would remain under law enforcement's domain. There would be no outside, independent reviews of any kind.
"The bill does not require testing or certification for officers," says Geoffrey Alpert, a recognized expert on police pursuit. "There is no policy review at the state level."
The same problem afflicts the bill's provisions for increased officer training. Without accountability, training is meaningless.
Would this legislation have saved Kristie's life or the lives of other innocent victims?
Regrettably, the answer is no.
Candy Merchant Priano, the sponsor of Kristie's Law, lives in Chico. Contact her through her Web site: www.kristieslaw.org.