Police Panel OKs Limits on Pursuits

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Police Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to prohibit LAPD officers from most vehicle pursuits -- those prompted by traffic infractions such as speeding or running a stop sign.

The new policy allows for chases when motorists are being sought for misdemeanors or felonies or in cases in which Los Angeles Police Department officers believe a crime is about to be or has just been committed.

The new rules, which officials predict will significantly reduce the number of collisions and injuries arising from high-speed pursuits, will go into effect as soon as LAPD officers are retrained on pursuit policies, a process expected to be completed within 90 days.

"It is a controversial policy decision but one I think is appropriate to deal with the issues," Police Chief William J. Bratton said after the commission's vote.

Under the old policy, LAPD patrol officers had virtual carte blanche to pursue fleeing suspects, and the senior officer on the scene was responsible for deciding whether and when to terminate a pursuit.

Police commissioners indicated last month that they were in favor of tightening the department's pursuit rules, but appeared unsure of how far they should go.

Bratton and Deputy Chief George Gascon convinced the panel that the new rules, reducing chases prompted by traffic infractions, will effectively allow police to use their best judgment to apprehend criminal suspects based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

Infractions -- from broken taillights to speeding or running a stop sign -- were the justification for nearly 60% of all pursuits by the LAPD in 2001. Figures for last year are not yet available.

The new guidelines call for the LAPD to use helicopters as the preferable means of tracking fleeing suspects and will give supervisors, such as watch commanders, the ability to manage chases as they unfold.

Officers also must continue to weigh the potential threat to bystanders against the need to make an arrest, taking into account traffic, weather conditions, the time of day, the presence of pedestrians and the danger posed by the suspect.

The decision to institute a new policy came in the wake of a significant jump in the number of chases in recent years and several high-profile pedestrian injuries and deaths during police pursuits.

Data from the LAPD show that from 1999 to 2001 the department engaged in pursuits on average 670 times a year. About 37% of those pursuits resulted in one or more traffic accidents. That in turn caused nine deaths and 479 injuries.

In 2001, there were 154 collisions during pursuits over infractions, 116 collisions that resulted from felonies, and 13 from misdemeanors, the LAPD said.

In March, Anna Polivoda, 76, and her husband, Henry, 79, were struck by a fleeing suspect near the Beverly Center in a pursuit that began over a car registration. The couple, both Holocaust survivors, suffered broken bones and head injuries.

A 4-year-old girl was killed three months later when an auto-theft suspect being pursued by Los Angeles police ran a red light on a busy downtown street, causing a chain-reaction accident that knocked over a traffic light, crushing the girl.

On Dec. 3, a 2 1/2-week-old boy lost an arm after his parents' sport utility vehicle was broadsided by a car occupied by four men fleeing police during a short, high-speed pursuit in Sylmar. In that case, police were responding to a felony stabbing call.

At the time, Commission President Rick Caruso favored a restrictive policy in which police could launch a pursuit only when seeking suspects in a violent felony. He changed his mind, however, after a Dec. 19 incident in which a group of street gang members fired dozens of rounds with a shotgun and an automatic rifle at LAPD officers who had seen them speed and run a stop sign in the mid-Wilshire area.

After viewing a bullet-riddled police car, Caruso said the incident showed the need for "a good faith exception," such as when police think a crime is imminent.

"We have to be realistic," Caruso said Tuesday, echoing the opinion of other commissioners. "I'm supportive of your policy as long as the exception is clear."

Department officials said they will continue to examine the policy and "tweak" it when necessary, and will prepare quarterly reports that analyze the guidelines to determine whether they reduce chases.

Bratton bristled at the suggestion that the new policy might cut down on arrests or that the public would be tempted to run red lights or commit other traffic infractions with the idea that police would not pursue them.

"We have studied this very carefully," Bratton said. "It's my professional opinion that will not be the case, and other professional jurisdictions that have engaged in this have not found that to be the case. That is part of what we have looked at."

Gascon noted that other police agencies, including the Los Angeles County and Orange County sheriff's departments, have employed policies even more restrictive than the new LAPD rules, but have not seen an increase in criminal activity.

Gascon added that one important way to cut the number of those who flee police would be to make the offense an automatic felony punishable by time in state prison, which is now being considered in Sacramento.

Some criminals would conceivably get away, Bratton said: "There's not a perfect rule out there."

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