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One wonders when law enforcement will treat
innocent people injured and killed in pursuits as crime victims.
 
 

Kristie's law essentially bans police pursuits

by Tom Chronister
May 2, 2004

Re: The Star's April 14 editorial, "Police pursuit law is overdue": To pursue or not to pursue? That is the question.

Police officers are expected to make critical decisions on a regular basis. One decision that occurs all too frequently is whether or not to initiate a vehicle pursuit. Experience tells us that when officers attempt to stop a car for a minor violation and the driver flees, there is usually some other reason why the driver does not stop. Frequently, one or more occupant is wanted, the car is stolen, the occupants are fleeing the scene of an unreported crime, or the car contains weapons or other contraband.

The Oxnard Police Department takes vehicle pursuits very seriously. We have a solid policy in effect that is frequently discussed during training sessions and officers are tested regularly on their pursuit-policy knowledge. When pursuits do occur, they are closely monitored by supervisory staff. We also offer driving instruction to our personnel and outfit our police cars with state-of-the art emergency warning devices.

Kristie's Law
State Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, has written Senate Bill 1403 (formerly SB 1866) that proposes significant changes to when police officers can pursue suspects in vehicles. While some of the legislation is boilerplate verbiage from many California law enforcement agency pursuit policies, there are provisions that are vague and confusing.

Imminent peril
Aanestad defines imminent peril as "an immediate injury or loss of life that is about to occur or is near-at-hand .... A likelihood of mere possibility of injury or loss of life is not sufficient to create an imminent peril." What does this really mean?

On A4 of the April 15 edition of The Star was a story about a Santa Cruz parolee who was shot and killed after an hourlong pursuit. During this incident, a California Highway Patrol officer was shot by the suspect. Does this incident rise to the level of "imminent peril"?

What would happen if an officer pursued a wanted suspect in a murder case? The loss of life previously occurred. The threat of immediate injury or death does not exist outside of the pursuit scenario. Can an officer legally give chase under this legislation?

Initiation of the pursuit
When does a pursuit begin? According to Aanestad, "It begins with the recognition by the violator whom the peace officer is attempting to stop." How is anyone besides the violator supposed to know that? How does a prosecutor prove the time of "recognition" to a jury?

An officer observes a car traveling 90 mph on the freeway. The officer turns on red lights and siren in an attempt to stop the car, but the violator does not slow. Is this a pursuit situation or is the violator simply unaware that the officer is trying to stop him or her? What must a violator do to show that they recognize that a peace officer is attempting to stop them?

Speed and stops
The Aanestad legislation requires that when officers approach "an intersection where signal lights or stop signs control the flow of traffic, a peace officer shall come to a complete stop at the intersection until the officer is certain that all traffic has yielded the right-of-way..." and, "At no time shall the pursuit vehicle exceed the posted speed limit by greater than 15 miles per hour."

Are these provisions reasonable? Can anyone else be "certain" of another driver's actions? If an officer is traveling 61 mph in a 45 mph zone with all emergency lights and sirens activated and is involved in a traffic collision, does this automatically place the officer at fault for the crash regardless of the other driver's actions?

Numbers
The legislation limits the number of pursuing motor vehicles to no more than two. While this is the guideline in most law enforcement agency pursuit policies, there are exceptions, such as when the vehicle being pursued has multiple occupants. Two officers cannot safely control more than two vehicle occupants at the termination point of a pursuit.

While we cannot control the actions of those violators who attempt to flee from officers, the Oxnard Police Department has taken advantage of recent technological advancements that make all types of emergency vehicle operations safer for the motoring public and the members of our department.

Leveraging a program started by the Oxnard Fire Department some six years ago, the Oxnard Police Department is beginning to equip its fleet with special "traffic signal pre-emption devices." This special equipment changes red lights to green when a police car has its emergency lights activated. This feature has already proved useful during a recent pursuit of a stolen vehicle and regularly results in faster, safer responses by fire equipment to emergency calls.

The Oxnard City Council has allocated nearly $200,000 to outfit existing traffic signals with traffic pre-emption equipment. New and replacement traffic signal installations are required to have the pre-emption system installed. Oxnard is the only city in the county that uses these systems and additional intersections are being equipped with this equipment on a regular basis.

Research into high-speed vehicle pursuit prevention and intervention techniques may provide law enforcement with high-technology tools that will incapacitate suspect vehicles. Some devices, such as retractable spike barrier strips that disable, are already in use by local law enforcement agencies and have met with limited success. We have all seen police pursuits on television where such devices are successfully deployed and the suspect keeps driving until the tire rim is ground to a nub. Other equipment, such as vehicle snares, vehicle marking systems, and motor vehicle electronic system disruptors, are still being tested.

Emergency vehicle operation -- whether it is pursuing a suspect in a fleeing car or responding to an emergency call for help -- is serious business. The overwhelming number of these incidents takes place with little notice from the public or the press. It is now a regular part of doing police work in today's society. The Aanestad law is essentially a ban on police pursuits. What will be the fallout if criminals can avoid capture by fleeing the police in a car?

While one death of an innocent bystander is too many, we must remember who causes most crashes. It is not the police, but the violator who decides to drive erratically in hopes of evading capture. It is a violator who creates the circumstances of a police pursuit, not the police officer.

When an innocent person dies as the result of a police pursuit, the blame should rest squarely on the shoulders of the suspect who failed to obey the law and used his car as a deadly weapon in a failed attempt to avoid arrest.

-- Tom Chronister is commander of the Oxnard Police Department.

 

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