Last week, I asked former state Sen. Sam Aanestad about a bill he sponsored in 2005 to rectify weaknesses in police pursuit practices. The idea wasn’t to ban pursuits; it simply would have required officers to assess whether the danger represented by suspects justified the risk of violent death all too common in high-speed chases.
His bill failed, but from its deliberations came this stunner: “One of the public information officers for the California (State) Sheriffs’ Association basically said, ‘Those crashes and those innocent lives are collateral damage for doing our job.’ ”
Who wants to tell that to Anahi Corona-Tovar, whose husband and 14-year-old daughter were killed last Wednesday in Antelope when their vehicle was struck by suspects reportedly fleeing police over a 20-mile stretch at speeds in excess of 100 mph?
The next day, a 12-year-old girl in Orange County was killed when an SUV barreled into the family minivan.
Statistics on high-speed police pursuits from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are sobering. From 2000 to 2011, 4,302 people have died at the wrong end of a police pursuit – 517 of them in California, more than in any other state. A third of those Californians were innocent bystanders. Another 10,000 Californians were injured in that same period.
That’s a lot of collateral damage and probably worse, since many jurisdictions don’t even report such figures.
When does a pursuit make the situation more dangerous than it was before the chase began?
“I draw my line at violent crimes,” Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina who has studied police pursuits for 30 years, told me. “Anything below that isn’t worth raising the risk to the public.”
The Antelope tragedy began after the suspects were spotted allegedly breaking into a car – a felony, yes, but not a threat to anyone’s life. In Orange County, the suspect bolted from a routine traffic stop.
Nationally, nearly two-thirds of police pursuits involve a stop for a traffic or vehicle code violation, figures show.
In recent years, jurisdictions have been revising their policies to where pursuits are engaged only when failing to do so will result in “grave injury or death.” In a hostage situation, we don’t do anything that puts people at greater risk. That same approach should apply to police pursuits.
“Revised pursuit policies work,” said Alpert, who helped write the one used in Orlando, which has become a model for departments nationwide.
That doesn’t mean police are letting bad guys get away. Former Dallas Police Chief Dave Kunkle implemented policy revisions in 2004 and told me, “We didn’t find any increase in incidences of people not stopping. We had six consecutive years of crime decrease. The city kept the same policy after I left in 2010 and has had more consecutive years of crime decrease.”
Still, you hear anecdotes about suspects getting away who later kill citizens, or even other officers.
“That’s so rare that statistically it’s an anomaly,” Alpert said. “Police are more likely to die from a chase than from a bullet. Why create risk for innocent people at such a rate when 75 to 80 percent of pursuits in California are conducted for traffic violations?”
Yet we escalate a situation in which most fleeing suspects are not immediate violent threats.
We tell motorists: The faster you drive, the greater your risk of an accident. We tell citizens: Don’t resist carjackers, or burglars stealing your wallet. Those are replaceable; your life isn’t.
Yet we expose the public to greater danger by engaging in pursuits at excessive speeds over stolen property – or more often, something as minor as a broken taillight.
If police remind us – rightly – that life is more important than property, is it too much to ask police to follow that same advice?
Judgment is critical here – not for the crook, who already has displayed poor judgment by committing a crime, but for the officer. Criminals are going to run. What’s better: to allow a criminal to temporarily escape apprehension, or to jeopardize the safety of citizens and the officer in a high-speed pursuit?
Only 15 percent of all chased drivers turn out to be people wanted for murder, rape or armed robbery. The rest become potential killers when a situation escalates into an adrenaline-filled, fuel-injected race, as it did last Wednesday.
A police officer’s job isn’t to match a criminal, but to be smarter, to make the critical distinctions about what’s worth going after and what’s not.
As Aanestad put it: “If the taillight is out or the registration is wrong, or if someone was chased for burglarizing a house – I don’t see that as worth endangering somebody’s granddaughter.”
Or just chalk it up to collateral damage. Your loved one is worth it, right?
Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at email@example.com.