In California, too many chase scenes

With a statewide average of one fatality per week due to high-speed police pursuits, California is debating tighter limits.

In the car-and-driving capital of the country, "cutting to the chase" has taken on a life of its own beyond the movie studio lot. On local TV stations here, live coverage of car chases occurs with such regularity that one enterprising Web company promises to send its subscribers an alert every time a police pursuit is broadcast on television.

The advertising pitch is one more piece of evidence that the number of car chases in the nation's most auto-and-people populous state has risen sharply in recent years: from 5,895 in 2001 to 6,337 in 2002 to 7,171 in 2003.

While the unpredictable pursuit of someone breaking the law makes good television, high-speed chases often come with unintended consequences: destroyed property, costly lawsuits, and loss of innocent lives - including police personnel themselves. That toll has given rise to calls for a crackdown on police chases here in the nation's most populous state.

Fueled by the growing statistics - including one fatality per week statewide, on average - and the outrage of families whose innocent loved ones have been killed or maimed in such pursuits, some California lawmakers want to step up restrictions on high-speed chases statewide. The state's Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has said that, since 1987, the state's loosely applied guidelines on pursuits - which give police immunity in damages - amount to a "get out of liability free" card. One proposal is calling for penalties for police who recklessly pursue drivers.

Two other states, Florida and Mississippi, have adopted stricter guidelines for officers in deciding when to pursue motorists and now California wants to expand its own practices beyond parts of Los Angeles, where stricter policies are currently in place.

In Los Angeles, the LAPD adopted a new policy for high-speed pursuits involving minor traffic offenses in 2002. That change in policy is credited for a 78 percent drop in injuries to bystanders and a 33 percent drop in police injuries.

"I want to look at ways for law enforcement to reconsider its policies in ways that will actually save lives," said state Sen. Sam Aanestad in legislative hearings last week. Half of the state's fatalities in such crashes are innocent bystanders. Mr. Aanestad first introduced legislation last year but it was seen by law enforcement across the state as too restrictive. Now he is trying to include police perspective at the outset and new language for the law is expected to be drafted in the coming weeks. "I'm not willing to wait a whole generation to start saving lives," the senator said.

In efforts to find common ground with police, the Senate Public Safety Committee heard testimony from retired chiefs of police, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, the California Highway Patrol, and statewide peace officer representatives.

They also heard from Candy Priano, whose 15-year-old daughter, Kristie, was killed when their family minivan was struck during a police pursuit in 2002. The legislation proposed by Senator Aanestad would be called "Kristie's Law."

Both sides focused on the observation that California laws currently say police must adopt a pursuit policy in order for officers to receive blanket immunity, but are not required to follow the policy. Sgt. Wayne Billowet of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department said that the culture of car pursuits - at least in the sherrif's department - has been slowly changing. Over the past 15 years, he said, 40 percent of pursuits are now dropped voluntarily by the pursuing officers - a practice that used to be dictated only by commanders at headquarters.

"I think the essential issue is that [California] has legislation that delineates policy," said D.P. Van Blaricom, retired chief of police from the Bellevue, Wash., police department, who has testified on the success of pursuit policies nationwide. "If you require that they comply with it - if you make that one simple change - the culture of policing and car chases would change and you would see similar experiences to that of L.A. sheriffs."

One dispute that participants say still need to be addressed is whether having stiff penalties for those who flee police is a significant deterrent. Geoffrey Alpert, a national expert who has written a book on the subject, claims that penalties don't work. But several working police at the hearing disagreed.

"We know there are serious problems with the way this is done in California," said Randy Perry, a lobbyist for the Peace Officers Research Association of California. But he says the "58,000 peace officers with experience on the street" feel education and stiffer penalties work. He cited a drop in alcohol-related traffic fatalities when penalties for driving drunk were increased.

"The general public needs to learn from a very early age that if you flee an officer, there are serious penalties in California," said Mr. Perry.

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