Are police chases too dangerous?

By Evan Sernoffsky
San Francisco Chronicle
June 6, 1015

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Three times in the past three months, suspects racing away from San Francisco police have plowed their cars into innocent people, killing a woman and sending several others to hospitals. Each time, officers apparently followed department policy. But in the aftermath of twisted metal and grief, a long-nagging question has re-emerged:

When, why and for how long should police chase bad guys fleeing in cars, especially in a densely populated city like San Francisco?

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It's that balance of risk versus reward. Was the pursuit necessary?
Was there an alternative way?
—Candy Priano
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Police say sometimes chases are necessary, even if they can result in accidents, if society wants to keep dangerous felons off the street. Critics say authorities in many cases should hit the brake pedal as soon as lawbreakers hit the gas and start threading through traffic.

"Chases enhance the risk to the public in many cases," said Candy Priano, executive director of PursuitSAFETY, a national nonprofit dedicated to changing law enforcement policy on high-speed pursuits. "Chasing is not a deterrent to crime. It has never lessened crime.

"It's that balance of risk versus reward," she said. "Was the pursuit necessary? Was there an alternative way?"

For Priano, the issue is deeply personal.

Thirteen years ago, a teenager who took her mother's car without permission plowed into Priano's minivan while being chased by police in Chico (Butte County). Her 15-year-old daughter, Kristie, who was on the way to a basketball game, was killed in the wreck.

"I don't think time heals all wounds," Priano said. "For me, it's a matter of days or moments when I find peace. When Kristie was killed, the house became silent. She was the little spark plug of our family."

Priano has dedicated the past decade-plus advocating for change on police-chase policies around the country. In 2005, she was a sponsor of Kristie's Law, a state Senate bill that would have required all law enforcement officers in the state to chase after violent felons only. The bill didn't pass — meaning each California jurisdiction still comes up with its own rules.

In San Francisco, police regulations say not to engage in high-speed pursuits of criminals they deem non-violent. The Police Department's policy on pursuing fleeing violators says "when the risk appears to be unreasonable, or when specifically prohibited by this order, the supervisor shall immediately order the emergency response or pursuit terminated."

 

SFPD officers gather evidence at the scene of a pursuit crash

SF Crash Scene

And indeed, in three recent cases where civilians were hit, San Francisco police determined the suspects posed imminent threats to the public and never called off the chases.

Just last Tuesday night, a man fleeing officers in a BMW ran over a 19-year-old man in a crosswalk at Eighth and Mission streets, setting off an intense chase through the city and over the Bay Bridge before losing his pursuers. The victim was seriously injured and the fugitive is still on the loose.

"The suspect made a turn and immediately ran over the person," San Francisco police spokesman Officer Albie Esparza said, explaining the police action. "The pursuit had not even begun. Clearly the suspect who chose to evade police was a violent felon."

Esparza said when the city's officers engage in a such high-speed pursuits, they have to evaluate the chase "on a continuous basis."

"If the play-by-play is a little out of control, a supervisor can also cancel a pursuit if they determine it is too risky," he said. "In this case, the suspect was on the freeway, which is a little less risky."

In another chase, officers in the Bayview on June 1 moved in to arrest 24-year-old wanted parolee Michael Cortez. Rather than surrendering, Cortez led police on a reckless chase through the city, injuring two when he crashed while trying to split traffic on Fifth and Market street, authorities said.

And on April 10, police spotted a trio of suspected armed robbers in a stolen Toyota Corolla. The officers hit their sirens, but the driver hit the gas and launched down California Street. Bridget Klecker, 42, likely had no idea what was happening when the driver slammed into her — and killed her — as she crossed California at Kearny Street. The wheel man sped off, clipping other vehicles on the way to Treasure Island where the trio ditched the car and disappeared. They were tracked down and arrested in May.

Police engage in hundreds of such chases a year around the Bay Area, often while going after violent criminals, according to reports by The Chronicle and other media outlets. But the chases are seldom cut-and-dried, said retired Las Vegas police lieutenant Randy Sutton, a spokesman for the American Council on Public Safety — and neither are individual department regulations.

He said pursuit policies are "some of the more controversial issues in policing," with many drastically reshaped over the past twenty years. "These things are very nebulous," he said. "Police have to weigh whether the immediacy capturing the suspects outweighs the public safety value of chasing the suspect."

Unlike in San Francisco, officers in some Bay Area agencies are not limited to chasing only felony offenders. The California Highway Patrol, which cited 2.8 million drivers on state freeways last year, can chase a driver who refuses to pull over for any reason.

The patrol officers and their supervisors, however, will continually evaluate the chase and call it off if "the risk of the pursuit to the officer, the suspect, and the public outweighs the benefit to capturing the suspect," said Officer Daniel Hill, a CHP spokesman.

"We don't know the reason why a person fails to yield to an officer," Hill explained. "They could be trying to get out of a traffic citation, or they could be a murder suspect who just committed a crime."

Richmond police for years had a policy similar to the CHP, but the department will soon be removing "property crimes, misdemeanors and other suspicious circumstances" as criteria for chasing after a fleeing suspect, Capt. Mark Gagan said.

While many agencies around the country are adopting policies of when, or when not, to chase criminals, the progress is slow, said PursuitSAFETY's Priano. And even though many agencies do have policies like San Francisco's to only chase violent felons, she said there needs to be more accountability after the fact — better record-keeping, and closer post-crash evaluations.

"Officers can't fire [their guns] into a crowd, but they can take a 4,000-pound bullet and drive [at high speeds] through our busy city streets," she said. "You have two forms of deadly force. Both are deadly high-risk police tactics."

Jonathan Farris, whose son, Paul, died in 2007 when a fleeing suspect in Boston slammed into his taxi, said statistics and reports on police chases are sketchy at best. He compiles data for PursuitSAFETY.

Unlike with police shootings, he said, agencies are not required to report chases to the federal government. He relies on media reports, which are incomplete because many chases don't make news. He estimated the number nationally each year is in the tens of thousands, the vast majority of which, he said, "are unnecessary."

"I was amazed, but a better word is 'appalled' at the number of police pursuits," he said.

Farris acknowledged the need for police to aggressively go after violent criminals, and said he's not trying to tie law enforcements' hands. It's closer evaluation he's after.

"Were not against police," Farris said. "We just want them making better decisions to protect people."

Evan Sernoffsky is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: esernoffsky@sfchronicle.com