Last week's incident in West Sacramento, wherein a 17-year-old in a stolen car led police on a chase that ended up killing a pedestrian, never should have happened. Not because the kid shouldn't have stolen the car, but because the cop never should have given chase.
Police departments need to seriously consider putting an end to high-speed chases. They are rarely productive, more often destructive, and too often terribly tragic.
Three years ago, a high-speed chase involving an officer in Dinuba claimed the lives of eight people, including all five children from one family. The parents survived. They were headed to a football game in which their 8-year-old son would play when three teenagers broadsided their vehicle while fleeing a police cruiser over a traffic infraction. The three teens also died.
Two years ago, a 27-year-old Citrus Heights woman was killed when a 16-year-old driver struck her car while fleeing an officer who had tried to pull him over for a moving violation.
In West Sac, the victim, a jaywalking transient, was hit so hard that the police cruiser severed his body, leaving the torso in the windshield and the legs strewn in the middle of the street.
Where is the rationale in any of this? West Sac police were told their suspect was driving a stolen vehicle and had failed to yield to officers. Are such infractions of such consequence that they're worth the lives of innocent victims? Consider the data.
Federal crime statistics show that 41 percent of all police pursuits result in a crash 80 percent involving the getaway vehicle, and 20 percent of the time the police officer crashes his vehicle. In the last decade, 470 Californians have died in 404 crashes related to police pursuits; nationwide, some 3,400 pursuits yielded nearly 4,000 deaths.
Reducing high-speed chases would not only save civilian lives, it would also save the lives of police officers. Since 1980, vehicular deaths have accounted for nearly half the police officers who have died accidentally. In recent years, accidents have claimed more police lives than felonious actions.
Yet, officers terminate their pursuits less than 5 percent of the time. However, when they do, it often proves an effective way to disarm fleeing suspects, who tend to think themselves no longer pursued and therefore "safe."
On the very same day of the Dinuba tragedy, three armed men robbed a Rocklin bank, driving dangerously in and out of traffic in their getaway vehicle. The pursuing officer decided they were posing a public safety hazard and backed off, following instead from a discreet distance while calling for backup, enabling police from local and county departments to corner and capture the suspects within the hour. No high-speed chase. No crashes, no fatalities, not even the use of fancy technology just good judgment and methodical, cooperative police work, which is how most crooks are caught because the police are very good when it comes to criminal investigation.
I have no faith in the judgment of joyriding teenagers who foolishly bolt at the sight of police, nor am I interested in second-guessing a transient wandering in the street. But from police, I expect rational thinking, sound judgment and a measured response.
Questionable, too, is the "felony murder rule" allowing prosecutors to file murder charges against anyone whose flight from pursuing officers leads to death, yet the odds of civilian death only increase when officers give chase.
Am I saying a cop should be charged with murder? Absolutely not, but in each case, officers regarded relatively minor violations as so important that they set in motion a chain of events that ended in the deaths of innocent bystanders. They know it, too, and I feel for them, for the awful personal burden they will bear for the rest of their days.
Smartly, some agencies have adopted more restrictive policies or prohibit such pursuits except in extreme cases. Yet, today, Sacramento police say their officers have been involved in more than 100 pursuits so far this year and Sacramento County sheriff's officials estimate deputies engage in as many as six pursuits a week.
Why not incentivize a solution by enhancing punishment? Enact a law: evading or fleeing police in the lawful performance of their duties will result in an automatic three-year jail sentence with no chance of plea bargain, parole or time off for good behavior.
Ultimately, this isn't about letting crooks get away with it, or cops not chasing bad guys. It's a matter of public safety because when high-speed police chases occur in populated areas, and they almost always occur in populated areas, innocent lives are at risk. I'm not for coddling young criminals, but getting citizens killed over relatively minor violations of the law is not good police work.