One of the most dangerous things law enforcement officers engage in is pursuing a motorist who refuses to stop.
At least 11,506 people were killed during police chases across the nation from 1979 through 2013, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
“The risk is not only to our officers but also to the public,” said Rick Vazquez, a sergeant with the Oxnard Police Department. That’s why the department and many other agencies have well-defined policies about when officers should engage in a vehicle pursuit, Vazquez said.
Even with such policies in place, bystanders are still killed during vehicle chases involving police.
An example is what happened July 22 in Ventura.
Police were chasing a vehicle that they said was being driven recklessly on westbound Highway 126. The vehicle hit an unmarked police car carrying two Ventura detectives on the highway, police said.
The unmarked police car pulled over after the crash, but the other vehicle continued on the highway, authorities said. Ventura police said the detectives in the vehicle were unable to catch the suspect because of high speeds. The vehicle exited the highway at Kimball Road, and an officer tried to pull it over, authorities said. But the driver instead sped up and ran a red light before the vehicle crashed near Blackburn and Kimball roads into three others, including a motorcycle headed south on Kimball, according to authorities. The motorcyclist was killed.
Ventura County prosecutors later filed vehicular manslaughter charges against the alleged driver, Victor Antonio Martinez, 24, of Santa Paula.
Martinez is also charged with a felony count of fleeing the scene of an accident involving a death, a felony count of evading an officer causing death, another felony count of carrying a loaded, unregistered firearm in a vehicle and a count of hit-and-run.
The Ventura Police Department reviewed the chase, something it does with all vehicle pursuits, said Tom Higgins, a commander with the department.
The policy governing vehicle pursuits in Ventura includes having “a minimum of three officers” involved, Higgins said. A supervisor at police headquarters also monitors the pursuit, looking at numerous factors, including the dangers presented to the public and officers as well as what crimes the fleeing motorist is suspected of committing.
“The goal of a pursuit is to safely take an individual or individuals into custody with the minimum amount of danger to the public,” Higgins said. Police also weigh the seriousness of the crime involved, he said.
“Say someone stole a jacket from Macy’s. Is it really worth chasing that person in a vehicle through a lot of traffic?” The answer is no, he said.
Other law enforcement agencies across the county consider the same things.
“If we can identify the suspect, if we know who it is, then we probably can catch them later, rather than engage in a pursuit,” said Capt. Garo Kuredjian, a spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies also are trained for vehicle pursuits “to make sure their skills sets are high,” Kuredjian said.
The training includes the use of a simulator presenting different scenarios during a pursuit, he said.
“It all looks and feels as if you’re driving in a real car,” he said. The simulators, with four or five to a room, are linked to each other to mimic a real-world pursuit with numerous squad cars involved.
As with Ventura and Oxnard police, a watch commander back at the station monitors pursuits. Anyone involved in a chase, whether at the station or in the field, can cancel a pursuit if they deem it too dangerous to continue, Kuredjian said.
His agency also will try to get a helicopter to help with a pursuit.
“Helicopters are very, very effective,” he said.
Ventura County has a countywide protocol that governs pursuits that cross into different law enforcement jurisdictions. The protocol covers such things as when another law agency takes over a pursuit as well as requests for assistance from other agencies and the termination of a pursuit.
Lucas Aragon, who works as a design director for ABC television in Los Angeles, lost a sister during a police pursuit in Albuquerque in April 2010.
Police had been chasing a bank robber, Jeremiah Jackson, when his vehicle crashed into a car carrying Aragon’s sister, Kim Aragon Nunez, and her co-worker, Janice Flores, killing both women.
Jackson later was sentenced to life in prison, Aragon said, “mostly because he robbed a bank, and not because he took the lives of two people.”
Aragon later became a member of PursuitSafety, a national nonprofit group that seeks to find safer ways for law enforcement officers to apprehend suspects and to cut down on the number of deaths and injuries related to police pursuits.
The group cites records kept by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the International Association of Chiefs of Police showing that on average, a person a day is killed during a police pursuit.
“More than one-third of them are innocent bystanders,” Aragon said. In addition, a police officer is killed every six to eight weeks during a pursuit.
Aragon and other members of the group suspect the actual numbers of those killed or injured in a pursuit are higher, since there is “no mandatory reporting system in the U.S. right now,” he said.
In addition to having a mandatory reporting system, Aragon would like to see a nationwide policy governing police pursuits, something that does not exist now, he said.
“My sister was killed by someone who had robbed $2,000 from a bank,” he said. “She left behind a family, including three children,” he said. “Was the $2,000 that he stole really worth her life and that of her co-worker?”
Too often, especially in places such as Southern California, where automobiles are such an important part of the culture, vehicle pursuits have become entertainment, something that captivates people’s attention as helicopters transmit TV images of a chase.
“What people forget is that all too often, these chases result in real victims, including police officers and innocent bystanders,” Aragon said.
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