L.A. Police Lash Out Against 'Three Strikes'


TWO years after California enacted the nation's first "three strikes, you're out" law, police officials here say the controversial measure is causing an unexpected consequence: resistance to arrest.

Suspects facing a third felony conviction - which means life in prison - are becoming more desperate and violent, say Los Angeles police.

As a result, police say, they have been forced to shoot and kill three suspects and wound a fourth in four separate incidents less than 48 hours apart in the San Fernando Valley.

"You might compare a possible third-striker to a cornered animal," says Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Lt. Anthony Alba. "If he knows he is going to get life in jail, he is definitely going to up the ante in eluding his captors."

Of the four suspects, one allegedly tried to ram a police car and run down officers, two tried to drive off at high speeds with officers clinging to the getaway car. One opened fire on officers after taking a civilian hostage.

The Golden State has already provided several sobering lessons for police departments around the country who have watched backlogs of criminal cases clog courts here. The flood of high-risk prisoners has also forced the early release of lesser offenders.

On the heels of the shootings, L.A. Police Chief Willie Williams is openly criticizing the law for fostering desperation.

"We don't know what's in the minds of these [suspects], but we do think that the threat of incarceration is beginning to have a detrimental effect," he said. Holding that criminals have a "a heightened awareness" that capture could result in long prison terms, Mr. Williams suggested modifying the law to apply only to those convicted of three violent crimes instead of requiring life sentences for all three-time felons.

Supporters of the three-strikes law argue that these few desperate acts are an indication that the law's message is getting through to criminals, and the overall result will be a reduction in crime. Critics say that twice-convicted felons giving police officers double trouble comes as no surprise.

"Did they expect that a person facing life in prison would be as compliant as a suspect arrested under less extreme circumstances?" asks Carol Watson, a civil rights lawyer and member of a local police-watch organization. She says, "This is just another example of how three-strikes laws are a disaster."

A formal review of the four shootings is under way. In the meantime, police and community critics are combing through statistics to see if the numbers back up the claims. By the LAPD's own records, the number of assaults on officers has dropped nearly 50 percent since 1992. Yet shootings by officers in 1996 appear to be on the rise: 25 through March 11, compared with 14 for the same period last year.

"Willie Williams's claim that hardened criminal and felony suspects are more desperate to fight cops because of three strikes would appear contrary to the general trend," says Don Cook, an attorney and member of the Police Misconduct Lawyer Referral Service. A sample of four shootings is far too small to make generalizations, Mr. Cook says. "The LAPD is just mouthing off until this is investigated."

Others note that several factors may be coming into play.

In the wake of the 1991 Rodney King beating here, a blue-ribbon commission recommended a host of reforms. Police contend that since then, officers have focused less on quantity of arrests and more on "quality," including concentrating on the most-dangerous criminals. Police union officials deny that explanation, attributing the lower number of arrests instead to reluctance of street cops to confront suspects in the wake of negative publicity from the King episode.

The number of LAPD arrests since then has dropped precipitously, from 290,000 to 189,000 since 1991, a trend that exceeded the modest dip in reported crimes both here and nationally.

"Taken together, the fewer number of arrests, along with an increased resistance from the felons they do chase, could mean that the LAPD is concentrating more on serious criminals," says James Fyfe, a criminologist at Temple University, Philadelphia.

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