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From the Field
Media and PURSUITS: To Pursue or Not Pursue?
By Jim Holcomb

(2/27/03) Mayor James Hahn and Police Chief William Bratton asked the media to pull the plug on televised police pursuits because they encourage similar activity by drivers who might otherwise just surrender.

The issue, however, is not the pursuits per se but the public’s right to be informed. Were it not for the broadcast of these pursuits, the very topic would not be the subject of public outcry and discussion. Live news coverage brings focus to the serious problem of how best to manage suspects who flee from police and have the potential to cause serious injury and death to innocent unsuspecting citizens.

Both as a police officer and as a helicopter reporter, I have covered hundreds of pursuits. The one question that viewers and fellow reporters always ask is why the LAPD does not seem to take advantage of any the opportunities presented by suspects during these chases to “box them in.”

Officially, LAPD spokesman will tell you “it’s an officer safety issue.” More specifically, the LAPD Manual regarding pursuit policy (section 1/555) clearly says:

“Tactics employed to stop a pursued suspect, such as establishing a physical barricade (road block), boxing in, heading off, ramming, or driving alongside the pursued vehicle are strongly discouraged.”

Consider also that LAPD officers get no training of any kind on pursuit intervention. The extent of their academy training consists of a three day driving course limited to skid recovery and high speed (code-3) driving—no pursuit intervention. Once in the field they seldom, if ever, get re-currency training on the high-speed track.

Then there is policy training. By practice, LAPD supervisors must touch on several major topics at least once every thirty days during “roll call training.” One topic LAPD management drills into its officers is the theory of pursuit, and post pursuit, discipline. This is where officers are reminded not go beyond the limits of their training or to do anything that could cause the Department to become liable during a pursuit.

>From my experience as a police officer in the field, and from recent discussions I have had with active officers; they tell me there have been several instances where resourceful officers wanted to end a chase by cutting off a suspect’s escape route. The reason they didn’t was our fear—fear they would have a personnel complaint initiated against them for wandering beyond the strict interpretation of LAPD policy. It’s the Risk Management Group of the LAPD, they say, that shutters at the thought of potential city liability should intervention be blamed for causing an accident. Meanwhile, those same Risk Management folks are blind to the liability of failing to act even when suspects unwittingly provide the opportunity.

In some cases, however, the live coverage of police pursuits clearly demonstrates the need for finding a better way to manage pursuits.

One case in point is the LAPD pursuit (2001) where the suspect drove slowly around the Rampart Police Station for almost three hours. Several times he stopped and chatted with news crews, then wandered off only to go around the block. LAPD seemed paralyzed and so was the community! Officers even blocked the driveway to their police station because the suspect wanted to drive in! It wasn’t until a Captain and Lieutenant from the Rampart Division got in a car, drove past all the black and white police cars, and forced the suspect curb that the chase finally ended. That suspect was wanted in connection with the stabbing death of his girlfriend in El Monte.

Officers I spoke with lamented, had they done what their supervisors did, they would have faced criticism and, most likely, disciplinary action for acting out of policy!

There are also times when the camera catches something the cops miss. Recently, in San Diego, the police lauded a local television station with providing video of pursuit suspects throwing evidence from their car as officers were chasing them. The police said, had it not been for the news helicopter overhead, they would not have known the evidence had been discarded or connected it with the suspects.

Pulling the plug, or government censorship, is not a precedent the media should embrace. Rather, let the public vote with their choice to watch or simply change channels.

About the Author
JIM HOLCOMB is a former Reporter-Pilot for KCOP-TV in Los Angeles. He is also retired 26-year veteran of the LAPD and has worked in several diverse assignments, including tactical flight operations in the Air Support Division.