Big Boys with Big Toys

by Richard Larsen
Deputy Opinion Page Editor 
The Ventura County Star
Summer 2002

I'm not a big fan of high-speed police pursuits. There have been too many tragedies. Jessica Mohorko, 18, of Oxnard, died in March 2002 after a CHP patrol car in pursuit of a speeding motorist slammed into the car in which she was riding. Four-year-old Evelyn Vargas was crushed by a light post in June 2002 in Los Angeles when a vehicle seeking to evade police crashed.

Of course, police always say strict guidelines have been followed in each pursuit and then generally blame the driver who was trying to get away. Granted, a pursuit begins when someone tries to flee police, but that doesn't mean a pursuit is necessary.

Unless someone is an imminent threat to the public, say taking pot shots at unsuspecting citizens with a semi-automatic weapon from the back seat of a nondescript 1991 sedan, police pursuits are more macho than law enforcement. Big boys with big toys who prefer to put the petal to metal no matter who they might put in harm's way.

What prompts these words is an incident that happened last week in those moments of relaxation just before dinner.

I live in a quiet apartment complex set back from Telegraph Road in Ventura. And when I say quiet, I mean the loudest sounds I've heard in the four years I've lived there have been the palm fronds slamming onto the roof when the wind kicks up and the occasional siren in the distance.

Thursday evening was different. By 5:30, I had changed into comfortable clothes, checked my e-mail and was relaxing with a pre-dinner glass of wine, watching to see if there was anything new in the war against Iraq other than "Explosions heard in Baghdad" and "Intelligence says the Iraqis could, or might or may do this horrible thing or that horrible thing or some other horrible thing."

Sirens in the distance piqued my interest, as is usual for anyone who works in the media, but this time, the sirens came with screeching tires uncomfortably close.

The facts are these. Ventura police noticed a man in a car smoking what appeared to be a controlled substance. As officers approached the car, the driver sped off and police gave chase. It lasted about 10 minutes, at speeds of up to 60 mph along Telegraph Road, until the man stopped, tried to run on foot and was arrested. It wasn't until the man was booked into jail that police discovered he was wanted on several outstanding felony warrants.

What is missing from this account is the reckless endangerment two police officers created when they decided that pursing a suspected dope smoker was more important than the safety of the people they have sworn to serve and protect. For in this brief chase, the fleeing suspect tried to evade police by speeding through the apartment complex where I live.

This is not your normal boxy apartment building around a central courtyard.  This is more like a community. Single-story units line both sides of the street, barely wide enough to allow four cars side by side. There is only the one way in and out.

Across the street from me is a family with a 7-year-old daughter, a 4-year-old son and a toddler just beginning to walk. A few doors down is an elderly woman who often uses a walker. Many other families with children and elderly residents live in the approximately 60-unit complex. We use the street as a sidewalk to get to the laundry room, or the mail boxes or to drop off the rent at the manager's office.

It was into this quiet serenity that lead-footed police followed the fleeing suspect. Tires screeching, sirens blaring, they followed the suspect around the loop, at speeds that had to be between 30 and 40 mph.

We shouldn't expect police to be like London cabbies who know the layout of their city like the back of their hand, but one would assume police would be aware of streets that go nowhere. Yet, both officers in separate cars followed like lemmings, speeding through the complex at a time when this street is at its busiest: People arriving home from work, checking mail, taking out the trash, or backing out of carports on the way for dinner out.

I and several others walked into the common area between the inner units and saw the suspect skid around the corner on his way out of the complex, nearly hitting a vehicle as he shot onto Telegraph without stopping. Shortly after, both police cars came speeding around the corner, and barely squeaked by a pickup that had come to a skidding halt.

Thankfully, the chase ended without injury or damage. Still, this was pursuit that didn't need to happen. As I said at the beginning, unless the public is in immediate danger from someone in a car, police pursuits should not occur.

All this because police saw a guy in a car, smoking dope. This wasn't law enforcement, it was just plain dumb.


Ventura County Star
2002 Copyright article reprinted with permission