For a few moments Tuesday night, it looked like a pickup driver had finally done what so many other car chase suspects could not: elude police during a high-speed pursuit.
With officers on his tail, the driver veered his truck off the roadway and into a Metro subway tunnel in Boyle Heights, disappearing from view of helicopters broadcasting the chase. Metro officials shut down the Gold Line as officers went into the tunnel and checked the subway station at Soto Street.
It turned out not to be a perfect getaway. The suspect was captured, but his passenger managed to get away, at least so far.
Televised car chases have long been a source of fascination in Southern California, even though the vast majority end the same way, with drivers eventually being stopped and arrested. Sometimes, they simply give up or run out of gas. Other times, police use spike strips or the “pit” maneuver to spin the vehicle and stop it.
Yet watching these chases involves a certain faith that maybe, just maybe, the driver will outrun the cops.
Against the odds, some do get away. A Los Angeles Times analysis found that the Los Angeles Police Department reported making arrests in 82% of chases from 2006 to 2014, well above the state average of 68%. More recent data were not immediately available.
“People are always going to try and get away, but it is pretty hard to escape,” said Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles police captain and pursuit training expert.
In November, three suspects thought to be involved in an armed robbery of a Laguna Niguel wireless store managed to escape police after a lengthy pursuit from Orange County to Pasadena, where they jumped out of their vehicle at the Paseo Colorado mall. They have yet to be caught.
A Los Angeles County civil grand jury report studied 421 police pursuits in the county that were reported to the California Highway Patrol in a 12-month period beginning October 2015. The report found that suspects were immediately apprehended in 67% of the chases, leaving 139 pursuits that did not end in an arrest. Fifty-nine involved vehicles that escaped, and 47 ended because police abandoned the pursuit, usually for safety reasons.
The report concluded that some pursuits caused “unnecessary bystander injuries and deaths” and that law enforcement officers need better training to reduce the risk of crashes during high-speed pursuits.
The Times analysis showed that LAPD pursuits injure bystanders at more than twice the rate of police chases in the rest of California. From 2006 to 2014, 334 bystanders were injured — one for every 10 LAPD pursuits, according to the review of pursuit data reported to the CHP.
Both the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have tightened their policies on pursuits, pushing away from chasing nonviolent offenders or suspects whose behavior at the wheel becomes so dangerous it is likely to lead to injury to pedestrians or other motorists.
Meyer predicted that police pursuit escapes will be more difficult in coming years.
“Some of the technology coming along will really make it much harder to escape. We are talking drones launched from police cars to track the getaway car,” he said.
Over the years, pursuit suspects have tried to evade police by driving into parking garages or into Los Angeles International Airport, where there are flight restrictions for news choppers, or by simply bailing out of cars and running onto freeway medians.
Eighteen months ago, one particularly resourceful car thief, after an hourlong pursuit, headed into the hills above Whittier. With the stolen Honda Accord still moving, he climbed out of the driver’s window and jumped while the car continued to coast down the tree-lined road.
But the action Tuesday night was something new.
It began when Ralph Lopez Jr., 26, of Los Angeles allegedly stole a truck in Huntington Park. Police from that city gave chase. At one point, Lopez slammed into a yellow cab, sending two passengers to the hospital. Later, he drove on a sidewalk before driving into a subway tunnel. At that moment, there was concern that the truck could hit a train inside the tunnel. But Metro quickly shut off service, and it turned out there were no trains in the short tunnel, which runs through a portion of Boyle Heights.
“The tunnel — it was a first for us in a pursuit,” said Huntington Park Police Lt. Al Martinez. “We don’t like firsts.”
Police eventually arrested Lopez but are still looking for his passenger.
Videos of the truck’s descent into the subway made the rounds on social media Wednesday. But Meyer worries it could have another effect.
“People are going to copycat what this guy did and end up getting hit by a train,” he said.