State pursuit policy needed

Police, bystanders' lives at stake

Ventura County Star Editorial

April 6, 2005—Although it is too early to judge the high-speed pursuit that ended in the death of an innocent Camarillo man Sunday, the tragedy underscores the need to address the escalating number of high-speed law-enforcement pursuits in California.

We've said it before, and we're saying it again: Law-enforcement's high-speed-chase policies have to change.

Fortunately, two California legislators are working on laws to ensure they do. Companion Senate bills 718 and 719 would create a statewide policy ensuring vehicle pursuits are conducted in the safest and most effective way possible.

State Sens. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, and Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, are again working to pass laws to curb high-speed police pursuits. They are soliciting input from California police chiefs and county sheriffs. A similar bill by Sen. Aanestad that would have allowed pursuits only when there was a threat of the fleeing driver hurting or killing someone failed last year.

Since that legislation failed, at least 36 more people in California have lost their lives in high-speed pursuits. Disturbingly, the number of vehicle chases in California keeps growing. There were 5,895 in 2001; 6,337 in 2002; 7,203 in 2003.

In 2003, of the 7,203 chases statewide, 1,049 resulted in collisions, killing 33 and injuring 1,106. Twenty-two of those fatalities were suspects and 11 were not, according to the California Highway Patrol. (The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2003 California had 51 deaths and 18 were occupants of another car.)

Revised pursuit policies can significantly lower those numbers, saving families immeasurable grief.

That has been demonstrated most notably by the Los Angeles Police Department, which banned pursuits for minor infractions in 2003, after an infant boy's arm was severed in a crash resulting from a high-speed police chase in December 2002. It has since noted a substantial drop in police and bystander injuries.

Authorities investigating the brief high-speed pursuit that resulted in the death of Stephen Aguirre, 39, of Camarillo, on Sunday say they are reviewing the Ventura County Sheriff's Department policy on chases.

Mr. Aguirre, a father of six, was on his way to practice hitting balls at a golf course when a driver fleeing sheriff's deputies broadsided his car on Carmen Drive in Camarillo. The chase ended just 90 seconds after it began.

A high-speed pursuit involving the CHP resulted in the death of Jessica Mohorko, 18, of Oxnard, on March 23, 2002. In her case, a Ventura County district attorney report concluded a CHP officer erred by speeding down a residential street at night with no lights or sirens, resulting in the crash.

Andrew Dawson, an attorney representing the Mohorko family, told The Star in 2003: "Under their (the CHP's) pursuit policies, they don't draw a distinction between chasing someone with a taillight being out and a terrorist. The way it stands now, a police officer can go a hundred miles an hour without their lights and sirens on into a schoolyard chasing someone. How can that be right?"

The CHP's response: There's nothing wrong with our policies.

Sens. Aanestad and Romero's legislation is called "Kristie's Law," after Kristie Priano, 15, of Chico, who was killed in January 2002 during a police pursuit. Another 15-year-old girl who had stolen her mother's SUV crashed into the Priano family van. The Priano family does not want anyone to experience their nightmare.

People can argue that those who flee police are responsible for these tragic crashes. That is true. However, law enforcement, and now the Legislature, must ensure that police pursue suspects in the safest manner possible.

That doesn't mean every tragic accident will be avoided, but as demonstrated in Los Angeles, it means there will be fewer of them.