Innocent Parties Hurt in Nearly 1 of Every 10 LA Police Pursuits

Deaths in El Sereno, Santa Ana renew focus on pursuit safety

By Patrick Healy
|  Tuesday, Jun 4, 2013  |  Updated 11:51 AM PDT
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Recent fatal police pursuits in El Sereno and Santa Ana are raising questions of the police's policy when it comes to chasing a suspect. LAPD Lt. Andy Neiman said it's up to the officers involved in the chase to constantly observe the situation, which may mean backing off on a pursuit. Patrick Healy reports from El Sereno for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on June 3, 2013.

Patrick Healy

Recent fatal police pursuits in El Sereno and Santa Ana are raising questions of the police's policy when it comes to chasing a suspect. LAPD Lt. Andy Neiman said it's up to the officers involved in the chase to constantly observe the situation, which may mean backing off on a pursuit. Patrick Healy reports from El Sereno for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on June 3, 2013.

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Dramatic SoCal Police Pursuits

Southern California is notorious for its police pursuits. Recent months have seen a remarkable assortment of chases, from the infamous "money toss," to the man huffing on colorful balloons as police close in, to the pink-hoodied driver who sprinted from a getaway car while talking on her cell phone. As the moments from eight recent chases captured here illustrate, car chases defy logic and common sense, putting the police and the public at risk.
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Nearly a third of Los Angeles police pursuits end in traffic collisions, and two-thirds of those crashes result in injuries -- to suspects, officers, and to innocent bystanders, according to statistics compiled by the department.

College student Julio Reyes, 23, became the latest innocent victim of an allegedly reckless driver who refused to pull over for police Saturday in El Sereno.

Reyes was killed in a four-car collision that police said was triggered when Jose Arellano, 20, lost control of his vehicle while being pursued.

Initial reports were that Arellano had been seen driving recklessly before officers attempted to pull him over. On Monday, police declined to confirm that until the investigation is complete.

Reyes loved photography and was studying technique at East LA College. One of his photos, an evocative study of an outdoor mural, is on display in a hallway of the technology building on campus.

On Monday, his heartbroken parents showed a visitor a photograph of their son, but said they were still too grief-stricken to speak of their loss.

His death was the second time in a week that an innocent bystander was fatally struck by a driver being pursued by law enforcement.

On Thursday, a man crossing a street in Orange County died after he was struck by a car carrying suspected gang members trying to escape Santa Ana police. He was later identified as Andrew Scott Reisse, 33.

Throughout California last year, 45 people were killed during police pursuits, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Twenty-seven of them were in a fleeing vehicle, 18 were not.

As the state's largest city, Los Angeles had the most pursuits, though the number has dropped nearly in half since a decade ago, when the department revised its pursuit policy to limit when pursuits should be initiated or continued.

The 609 pursuits in 2003 had decreased to 346 in 2011, according to LAPD Lt. Neiman, a former commander of the Pursuit Review Unit. By department policy, every pursuit must be documented in a report by a patrol supervisors, and the Review Unit goes over every report.

Nearly a third of the 2011 pursuits had traffic collisions--116--and those resulted in injuries to 50 suspects, eight officers, and 31 uninvolved third-parties, Neiman said.

"People get hurt. Officers get hurt. We look at all to try to mitigate injuries," said Neiman.

In most cases, refusing to pull over for a traffic violation is not enough to warrant a pursuit, unless the violation is reckless driving that creates an ongoing threat to public safety, Neiman explained.

In dangerous pursuits, LAPD has a protocol for calling in air support to track the vehicle from the air, allowing patrol cars to back off. But not every pursuit lasts that long.

According to one account, the El Sereno pursuit was as short as a minute.

"It's up to the officers involved to constantly re-evaluate the scenario," said Neiman, and that may warrant backing off, even if air support is not available.

But if an imminent threat to the public is seen, officers will not yield.

"Our job is to protect public safety," Neiman said. "If there's a pursuit, you can be sure there's a good reason."

Law enforcement agencies in Illinois and some other states tend to have more restrictive pursuit polices than California, said Geoffrey P. Alpert, professor of Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina, and an authority on pursuits.

Alpert served as an adviser to then-Chief William Bratton when the LAPD revised its pursuit guidelines. Alpert called the 2003 revision a good first step, but believes LAPD needs to go further, as some other agencies have, and adopt a policy limiting pursuits only to felonies.

"We're not at that stage," Neiman said.

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