One wonders when law enforcement will work with
California legislators to prevent future victims.
SPEAK YOUR PIECE: Senator Sam Aanestad
In the last few weeks, there has been a media storm regarding my introduction of Senate Bill 1866 (the number was changed to SB 1403), Kristie's Law, regulating high-speed police pursuits in California. At a recent California State Senate hearing on the bill, most of the major law enforcement agencies in the state lined up in opposition to the bill, while parents of victims and experts in pursuit research were in support. In an attempt to inform the public about the intent of this bill, I offer the following:
- By Senator Sam Aanestad
- Redding Record Searchlight
May 12, 2004
Two years ago, in my district, 15-year-old Kristie Priano was killed as her family van was struck by a fleeing teenager who was being chased on dark residential streets by the local police department. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that the police knew who the teen was, where she lived, and that the "crime" committed was taking her mother's car without permission. It was a chase that never should have occurred. The Priano family brought the matter to my attention, and what my staff and I found out should scare the daylights out of everyone reading this.
Let me present a few facts: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 51 Californians were killed in 2001. That's one every week! Nationally, more than one victim is killed every day! With approximately 6,000 high-speed pursuits in California each year, about 1,000 of these chases end with a collision, with hundreds of permanently disabling injuries. California ranks number 1 in deaths from pursuits, close to the combined total of New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Florida! Texas was a distant second with 30 deaths that year. The NHTSA states that, "Injuries and deaths that result from law enforcement vehicle crashes exceed those that result from armed confrontations." Folks, we have a serious problem here.
Worse yet, statistics and research reveal that 63 percent of all chases were initiated because of a vehicle code violation—a broken taillight, out-of-date license plate, speeding, or not wearing a seat belt. Are those worth someone's life? Only 15% of all chased drivers turn out to be people wanted for murder, rape, or armed robbery—the rest were car thieves or traffic violators. That means approximately 310 people nationally lose their lives because of a high-speed pursuit initiated for relatively minor reasons.
Let's put to rest some of the myths used by law enforcement to justify this "collateral damage," as described by one high-ranking law officer, referring to California's death total in his testimony presented at a recent California Senate hearing on this bill.
Myth number one: If someone flees, they are running because they are criminals who have something dangerous to society to hide. Myth number two: That a strict pursuit policy will encourage more people to flee, and what we really need are stricter fines and punishment for those who do. Sounds logical, but the data says it ain't so. Dr. Geoff Alpert, a criminologist on faculty at the University of South Carolina, is one of the world's leading experts on police pursuits and the use of lethal force in law enforcement. In his book, "Police Pursuits: What We Know," he writes that the data, "show that most offenders flee because they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol." Further, Dr. Alpert found that, "while officers believed that more suspects would run if departments had stricter pursuit policies, suspects maintained that they would continue to avoid the police at all costs. Thus, the punishment does not deter suspects from fleeing."
The major problem is that there is no statewide standard for high-speed pursuits. Every law enforcement agency has to have a pursuit policy so they can have blanket immunity from lawsuits, but, incredible as it seems, there is no law requiring that agency to follow those policies. Early this month, the San Francisco Police Department was involved in a pursuit which ended in a fatality, only to find that in 1997 San Francisco had already adopted a pursuit policy, which would have prevented this chase from happening. The officers involved, including the supervisor, stated they weren't aware the policy even existed!
No wonder that the 4th District Court of Appeal urged the Legislature to "reconsider the balance between public entity immunity and public safety." Justice William Rylaarsdam lamented that, unfortunately, adoption of a policy, which may never be implemented is cold comfort to innocent bystanders who get in the way of a police pursuit.
I do need to point out that some California agencies (namely, Los Angeles Police Department, Orange County Sheriff's Department) have recently adopted stricter pursuit standards with dramatic safety results, and are to be commended. But, unfortunately, hundreds of California law enforcement agencies have not, despite the rising number of injury and deaths.
It is interesting to note that California's Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training requires eight hours of training for a recruit to use his/her baton (the club they carry with them), and at least 64 hours of firearm/arrest training, including a two-hour requirement on how to properly clean their gun. Yet there is only a two-hour requirement for pursuit training—total!
Many years ago, the California State Legislature passed very strict regulations on the use of guns in police situations. Simply stated, the new standard said that a peace officer could only use his gun if someone's life was in danger. You could no longer shoot at a fleeing suspect who had just robbed the corner store unless he was wielding a weapon and posing a direct threat to someone. Law enforcement rigorously opposed the new regulations, citing all the dire consequences of "tying the hands of law enforcement." Yet, years later, every law enforcement leader will say that those laws drastically improved the public safety.
My bill will set a statewide standard for police pursuits. For the past year, my staff has searched the literature on pursuits; we have had dozens of contacts with law enforcement agencies in many states, counties, and cities, which have adopted strict pursuits policies, with remarkable decreases (60-80 percent) in pursuit injuries and deaths. When the Florida Highway Patrol adopted strict policies on pursuits in 1997, there was intense resistance from its officers. But a 62 percent reduction of accidents without an increase in crime has prompted a change in attitude, best put by one officer who said, "There are better and safer ways than a high-speed pursuit to bring someone to justice." We have put most of the best of their policies in this bill to create a single statewide standard for all high-speed pursuits.
After so much research, after too many letters and phone calls from the grieving families of innocent victims, for me, it's become very simple. I hold my beautiful granddaughter in my arms and ask, "What is her life worth?... A broken taillight? A stolen car? A bag of money? Of course not! She's not "collateral damage." Every one of those innocent victims who will die or be maimed is somebody's grandchild, and as a California State Senator who has the ability to do something about this carnage, I become their surrogate grandfather, and it's my responsibility to protect them the best way I know how. Other law enforcement agencies nation-wide have found that chasing someone is usually not the best way, but rather, the worst way. California must get up to date. Kristie is gone, but she will not have died in vain. Kristie's Law will save lives. And that's what it is all about!
Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, represents California's 4th District.