Pursuits Bring Out Volatile Mix of Emotions
The siren wails. The red lights flash. But the car ahead doesn’t stop. Instead, it speeds off. And the chase is on.
It’s a situation that can very quickly take a dangerous or even deadly turn. Almost always, according to experts, the mix of danger, fear and speed fuels a rush of adrenaline and anger in police officers pursuing a defiant suspect--a combustible mixture that sometimes ignites when, as it must, the chase comes to an end.
“We call it the pucker factor,” Geoffrey Alpert, one of the nation’s leading experts on police pursuits, said of the sensations common to most officers.
“It’s an enormous rush, an adrenaline rush, extremely exciting and tense and dangerous,” said Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina. “Decisions have to be made very quickly. And you end up making decisions flying by the seat of your pants--based on what you think might be best.”
The beating Monday of two suspected illegal immigrants by Riverside County sheriff’s deputies after a lengthy pursuit has once again highlighted the volatile emotions that can come into play when, at the end of a chase, the hunter confronts the hunted.
Sometimes, experts say, that confrontation is driven not by reason or by law, but by fury.
“Individual cops can go over the edge,” said Joseph P. McNamara, a former San Jose police chief and now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
“They allow their personal anger to get involved,” said McNamara. Once a beat cop, he added: “It’s hard not to.”
The issue of high-speed chases has long sparked emotions--and calls for reform. The latest came Tuesday, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California labeled the beating an example of “high-speed pursuit syndrome” and urged the U.S. Justice Department to undertake a complete study of “use-of-force dynamics.”
Many departments, after weighing the emotions and unpredictable risks of high-speed pursuits, have ruled them out. Any chase, police officers and experts said Tuesday, involves the risk of death or injury to those being chased, to the officers chasing them and to bystanders.
In Dallas, police now break off a chase if a fleeing suspect speeds or runs red lights. Other departments, such as in Louisville, Ky., pursue only fleeing felons.
Across Pennsylvania, under a law that went into effect in late 1994, police must call off a pursuit when the risk outweighs the need for immediate arrest.
The Los Angeles Police Department policy calls for officers to “weigh the seriousness of the offense” against the “potential dangers to themselves or innocent citizens” before beginning a pursuit. Riverside County sheriff’s deputies pursue suspected felons or drunk drivers, said a department spokeswoman, Deputy Lori Marquette. Internal affairs deputies are reviewing Monday’s chase to see if it fell within that policy, she said.
In Sacramento, meanwhile, the Assembly Public Safety Committee is due Tuesday to consider a bill making it a felony to flee in a vehicle from a police officer. It also would substantially stiffen sentences for anyone who injures or kills someone while fleeing the law.
The bill, drafted by Assemblyman Jim Morrissey (R-Santa Ana), heads to committee in the wake of three high-speed Orange County chases in December and January that resulted in five fatal crashes.
“The only thing I’ll say is that emotions run very, very high during high-speed pursuits,” Fullerton Police Chief Patrick McKinley said Tuesday.
“Any way that we, as chiefs, can reduce the number of pursuits and, therefore, the physical as well as emotional toll caused by them, then we’re taking a giant step forward,” he said.
The chase that ended Monday in South El Monte was in part the product of the U.S. Border Patrol’s changed pursuit policy.
The Border Patrol backed away from high-speed chases after a 1992 pursuit in which a van carrying illegal immigrants crashed near a Temecula high school, killing six people.
On Monday, after three unsuccessful attempts to stop a pickup truck that used a side road to make a detour around the Temecula immigration checkpoint, Border Patrol officers called the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
From there, experts said, the chase featured a potent mix of the classic emotional triggers: speed, danger and defiance of the law.
Deputies chased the pickup as it sped north on Interstate 15 and then west on the Pomona Freeway at speeds up to 75 mph.
At such speeds, “it’s a highly dangerous, action-oriented pursuit where, as a police officer, you’ve got several concerns going on,” McNamara said. “You want to catch the [suspect] but you don’t want to injure anyone. You especially don’t want to injure innocent people.
“And the person leading you on this chase is defying you, defying the siren and the red light, defying everyone and everything.”
Twice during the chase the pickup truck tried to ram other cars in an attempt to divert the attention of the pursuing deputies, according to Sgt. Mark Lohman, a Riverside County sheriff’s spokesman. That may well have added to a sense of outrage and righteousness inside police cruisers, experts said.
“It’s referred to as ‘contempt of cop,’ ” Alpert said.
The fact that the chase went on for 80 miles also may have contributed significantly to officers’ emotions, experts said.
During the chase, ways to relieve stress and anger are few. “The most you can do is press on the accelerator pedal or a microphone key or squeeze a steering wheel,” said Steve Bunting, executive director of the Delaware-based American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers.
“When you get out of the car . . . you are basically in what we call a survival mode,” he added. “People, and police officers are people, have a tendency in this state to act aggressively.”
The pickup--which lost its camper shell during the pursuit--finally pulled to the shoulder of the Pomona Freeway near the Peck Road offramp in South El Monte.
The videotape, filmed by a crew for KCAL Channel 9--shows people bolting from the truck and dashing for cover in a nearby nursery.
Two people remained with the truck, a woman and a man. Those two took the beating.
“The main thing that has to [happen] is that cops have to know it’s wrong to do this,” McNamara said. “People who enforce the law have to obey the law. You can’t beat people. It’s not an option. It’s not a little mistake. It’s a big deal.”
Alpert, who instructs at police departments around the nation, added that he recommends strongly that the officer leading the chase not be involved in the arrest. Another officer, he said, hasn’t “been as emotionally involved, hasn’t been as threatened.”
He added that he usually concludes his training sessions by asking officers two questions:
“If your mother was out driving on the same street that there was going to be a chase on, or your kids were out playing on the sidewalk next to that street, would you want to be the officer out there chasing on that street?
“Then we ask--and I’ve probably asked 5,000 officers this question and never gotten a good answer--what are you going to do when you catch up to the guy?”
Times staff writer Lee Romney and correspondent Debra Cano contributed to this story.
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