At least two television stations provided live coverage Wednesday as Long Beach police officers fatally shot a man after a car chase, reigniting a debate about how TV news outlets should cover chases and other live events that could end in violence.
The shooting came at the end of a 50-minute pursuit across Long Beach and the South Bay that channels 2 and 7 followed with TV helicopters -- the kind of story that has become a staple of local newscasts.
When the suspect suddenly jumped out of his vehicle at a Long Beach strip mall and allegedly reached for a pistol, the cameras captured a group of police officers opening fire and the suspect falling to the ground.
Coverage of car chases and similar live events has been an issue of contention since 1998, when local stations broadcast live the death of a despondent man who shot himself on a Century Freeway overpass. Concerns intensified two years ago, when five stations provided live coverage as Los Angeles police shot a robbery suspect to death in front of Santa Monica High.
After that incident, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton and Sheriff Lee Baca publicly urged TV stations to reduce their coverage of chases, arguing that the intense focus encourages criminals to flee from authorities.
Some TV stations dispute this contention and argue that the chases are news. And on Wednesday, officials at KABC-TV Channel 7 defended the way they handled the chase.
“Live breaking news is always unpredictable,” said William Burton, a station spokesman. “Our news staff was aware of the increasing danger and violence. We responded accordingly.”
Burton said it was impossible to know what would happen to the man when he got out of the car. “He looked like he was going to run away.... Obviously, no one knew shots were going to be fired. The instant we did, we went to a wide shot. It was not 10 to 20 seconds after but the moment we were aware it was happening.”
Burton said viewers could hear the reporter say on the air, “Pull wide, pull wide.”
The station also showed restraint during earlier parts of the broadcast, he said, when the situation looked potentially violent.
“In this very same chase, there were two times before, when, over the air, you can hear the reporter say, ‘Pull out wide,’ because of the exact same thing, the potential for this to turn more dangerous and violent. That was our effort to minimize graphic material.”
KABC-TV is one of several stations that attempt to go to wider shots when it appears there might be violence.
“Our people are instructed to pull out as quickly as possible when you see the end of a chase coming,” said KTLA-TV Channel 5 News Director Jeff Wald, whose station is owned by Tribune Co., which also owns the Los Angeles Times. “There’s no reason on God’s earth why you need to show an actual shooting.”
KTLA did, however, air tape of the shooting on its 10 p.m. newscast.
Some media experts say such events should not be broadcast live.
“Maybe we need a five-second delay to avoid exposing kids to this kind of imagery,” said Marty Kaplan, an associate dean at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. The broadcast occurred about 5:30 p.m., when many families gather around the television.
But Kaplan said it’s hard for the stations to change because the public seems fascinated by the chases.
“I think the motto, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ didn’t just fall from the sky,” he said. “It’s well-known that mayhem attracts our attention.... Ever since the possibility of O.J. Simpson blowing his brains out while we all watched him in the Bronco, we have known the power of that stuff to get ratings.”
KNBC-TV Channel 4 News Director Robert Long said his station decided not to air the chase live because it was “apparent to the seasoned eye that it was going to end badly.”
“It’s always tempting to jump in when it’s the news hour and you know everyone else is catching it,” Long said. “But it just seemed like a bad idea.”
Long says the station has a policy of not airing such chases live when it appears there will be footage of “a graphic scene,” like a shooting death.
“It has to rise to the level of real news, not just eye candy,” he said.
Officials at KCBS-TV Channel 2 did not return calls seeking comment.
Long Beach Police Officer Greg Schirmer said Wednesday’s incident began after police received a report that a Buick Regal sedan had been stolen during a home-invasion robbery in Riverside on Monday. Details of that incident were not immediately available.
About 5 p.m., a Long Beach patrol car spotted the car at Lemon Avenue and 20th Street, police said. They said the car drove away at high speed. The patrol car gave chase and was soon joined by units from the California Highway Patrol and several helicopters from television stations.
“During the pursuit, officers saw a gun in the driver’s possession,” Schirmer said.
The chase moved onto the Harbor Freeway, reaching speeds as high as 110 mph, highway patrol officers said. As the suspect attempted to get off the freeway at Pacific Coast Highway, the car skidded and struck a barrier. Investigators said a CHP car pulled up behind the sedan, and two officers got out and pointed their weapons at the suspect. He put the car into reverse, backed away from the barrier and drove away at high speed.
The car eventually swerved into a parking lot of an El Pollo Loco restaurant at Anaheim Street and Redondo Avenue, and the man, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, jumped out with what appeared to be a gun in his hand. Police pulled up behind him and got out, handguns and a shotgun at the ready. As he ran, the suspect stumbled, dropping the pistol on the pavement. Police said that as he reached into his shorts to pull out a second pistol, officers opened fire.
“Fearing for their safety and that of the residents, more than one officer fired his weapon,” Schirmer said.
“They told him, ‘Stop! Stop!’ three or four times,” said Mitri Batshon, 54, who works at a service station across the street. “I heard shots, maybe 10 or 15,” Batshon said. “He didn’t get up.”
Times staff writers Tonya Alanez, Hector Becerra and Richard Winton contributed to this report.