The police car chase: Too many, too dangerous, says LA grand jury

File photo.
File photo. Photo by Steve lyon via Flickr Creative Commons

Police in Los Angeles County engage in too many high speed pursuits, resulting in "unnecessary bystander injuries and death," according to a report issued this week by the civil grand jury. The report looked at the issue by examining the policies and practices at the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department.

Using statistics from the California Highway Patrol,  the report said there were 421 pursuits over a year-long period ending last September.  Seventeen percent resulted in crashes – three fleeing drivers were killed and a 15-year-old boy was decapitated after being hit by a stolen car being pursued by the LAPD.

The officers never turned on their lights and sirens because they were waiting for backup – even though they were traveling more than 60 miles an hour on surface streets, the report said. The LAPD claimed that they were not in a formal pursuit, although the officers admitted in court that they were chasing the car at a high rate of speed, according to the grand jury. 

A total of 45 suspects and officers were injured during these chases.

More than 90 percent of high-speed chases are initiated in response to a non-violent crime, according to  studies by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Institute of Justice. The studies found that 42 percent involved a simple traffic infraction, 18 percent involved a stolen vehicle, and 15 percent involved a suspected drunk driver.

"Is it worth putting lives at risk by traveling through urban areas at high speed to apprehend somebody who ran a red light?" the study asks. "Or who failed to signal a turn?"

During the year that it studied, the grand jury also found just two-thirds of the drivers who were pursued were caught.

Some of the findings of the Grand Jury:

  1. Police pursuits are causing unnecessary bystander injuries and deaths.
  2. Most vehicle pursuits are not provoked by serious crimes. 
  3. Vehicle pursuits are not assured of satisfying police goals – for example: arrests, reducing dangers to the public, issuing citations.
  4. The Sheriff’s vehicle pursuit training facility is substandard, particularly when compared with the LAPD’s facility. Training hours are limited and vehicles used are not the same as those used in the field.
  5. The LAPD vehicle pursuit training facility sets a high standard.
  6. Neither the Sheriff nor the LAPD have a policy for recurring or continued vehicle pursuit training. As a result, continuous quality of driving skill in the field cannot be assured.               

The report recommends more training for both LAPD officers and sheriff's deputies and the establishment of a joint task force "to define/update sheriff pursuit policies that are likely to result in fewer civilian casualties and less property damage." The idea would be to develop best practices that could be promoted at more than 40 other smaller police departments that operation in LA County.

A sheriff’s spokesperson was not available for comment.

LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein would not comment directly on the recommendations.

"We understand that police pursuits are inherently dangerous and that’s why, of course, we take every step to develop tactics to mitigate risk," he told KPCC.

The LAPD is looking at adding a third patrol car to all pursuits, Rubenstein said. Right now, two patrol cars follow the fleeing car with a helicopter in the air and a supervising sergeant nearby directing the pursuit.

The Civil Grand Jury consists of 23 members. Members are selected from a volunteer pool or are nominated directly by a Superior Court judge. The final 23 members are selected randomly by computer.

Each July members are sworn in as grand jurors for a 12-month period ending June of the following year. They are authorized to examine all aspects of county and municipal government, special districts, and the jails in L.A. County.  Service is a full-time job.

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