In police lingo it’s known as Code 3: An emergency call that sends cops speeding through traffic with the squad car’s lights flashing and sirens blaring.
Then there’s “Code 2 1/2 ,” an off-the-books practice of racing to a call without lights or sirens to warn other drivers. It’s the street cops’ way to work around strict Los Angeles Police Department rules that limit when they can drive Code 3.
The unsanctioned response has been responsible for some of the worst officer-involved traffic collisions, costing the city more than $11 million since 2006. In light of the problems, Chief William J. Bratton wants to give officers more latitude on using their lights and sirens.
Bratton’s proposal to rewrite the Code 3 policy has rankled some members of the City Council, who fear that the new rules would give too much discretion to eager, adrenaline-fueled rank-and-file officers and could give rise to chaos on Los Angeles’ streets. This week, the council took the unexpected and unusual step of asserting its authority over the LAPD, forcing the department to put its new policy on hold pending a review by the council.
The rising debate underscores the delicate balance police departments must strike between quickly getting officers to crime scenes and the potential danger that rushing to a call poses to others. This week, a woman was killed and a man was badly injured when their car collided with a La Habra police officer, who was Code 3 en route to a call.
Under the LAPD’s long-standing policy, only one patrol car is dispatched Code 3 to an emergency. In general, emergencies include violent crimes in progress, officers in need of help and other serious threats to public safety. Property crimes such as burglaries or an officer’s call for backup are not considered emergencies.
State law permits officers traveling Code 3 to break traffic laws -- exceeding speed limits and running red lights, for example -- as long as they turn on the lights and siren and show regard for the safety of others on the road. The LAPD’s current policy prohibits all other officers responding to an incident from traveling Code 3 unless they announce their intention to do so over the radio and provide dispatchers the route they will take to the incident, something that is rarely done, police officials said.
The LAPD policy, police officials said, assumes officers will be content to abide by a “get there when you get there” approach to calls for help.
“That’s not reality. Officers don’t do that,” LAPD Cmdr. Stuart Maislin said earlier this week in a presentation to the civilian Police Commission that oversees the department. “They either use their Code 3 equipment in violation of our policies and procedures or they drive Code 2 1/2 -- they don’t turn their lights and sirens on and they break every rule that out there on the road. And that’s what results in liability when there is a crash.”
Since 2006, the city has paid $15.7 million to resolve about 625 claims and lawsuits filed by people involved in traffic collisions with LAPD officers, Maislin said in an interview.
Not all of the cases involved Code 3 issues, but Maislin highlighted three recent cases of collisions involving officers driving Code 2 1/2 that the city paid $11.75 million to settle. The most costly was a $6.25-million settlement with a man who was seriously injured when he was hit by a police detective responding to a call for backup without his lights and siren.
By comparison, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department permits multiple patrol units to respond to an emergency with lights and sirens, but only after a dispatcher has authorized them to do so.
This week, the Police Commission unanimously approved changes to the Code 3 policy. If approved by the City Council, the new policy would let officers in the field decide whether to respond Code 3 to any emergency.
What constitutes an emergency would also be broadened under the new rules to include “serious crimes” instead of strictly violent ones, as well as an officer’s call for backup.
The amended policy would also make supervisors in the field responsible for scaling back the number of squad cars if too many responded.
“If a resident dials 911 and it’s important, I don’t think they are expecting our officers to sit in traffic waiting for it clear,” Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said. “We have officers now who want to get places quickly for the right reasons, and we’re not putting them in a position to do so safely. We do a disservice by being so conservative on this.”
Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who was LAPD police chief before being replaced by Bratton, disagrees.
Parks called the new rules “a recipe for trouble,” saying they leave too much discretion to officers and do not define clearly enough the scenarios that constitute an emergency. He and Councilman Dennis Zine, a former LAPD officer, also questioned the department’s argument that the changes would mean fewer accidents, raising the concern that the increased number of officers driving Code 3 would result in more collisions.
Known as a strict disciplinarian when he was chief, Parks said that officers frequently drive recklessly and that the department fails to punish them adequately when they get into traffic accidents -- accusations that police officials reject.
“You look at how officers routinely drive, with or without their lights and sirens on, and you see all the incidents for which we are paying. And now they’re saying, ‘Let’s open this Pandora’s box and make it easier to put more of these police car missiles on the street,’ ” he said.
With a long history of sniping between them, Bratton was dismissive of Parks’ intervention and defended the department’s changes. “That’s just Parks being Parks,” he said. “Sometimes he forgets he’s no longer the chief of police.”
Nonetheless, Parks and Zine stopped the changes from going into effect by persuading the council to invoke its rarely used authority to pull rank on the Police Commission. The issue is scheduled to be debated Monday by the council’s Public Safety Committee. From there, it must go before the entire council, which will decide whether to veto the commission’s policy or allow it to stand.
A spokesman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the mayor “strongly supports” the proposed changes and called on the council to review them and allow them to be implemented.
Commission President Anthony Pacheco and Commissioner Robert Saltzman welcomed the council’s review, saying they believe the changes are the right move.
“The department thought carefully about this, and the changes are good ones,” Saltzman said. “I am hopeful they will reach the same conclusion.”