No agreement on pursuit bill
SACRAMENTO – In the future, California law enforcement agencies might work with state Sen. Sam Aanestad to formalize a statewide policy for vehicle pursuits.
But it was evident from Wednesday’s Senate Public Safety Committee hearing, held in Sacramento, that the legislator and law enforcement officials still disagree on at least one topic: Whether officers should be immune to liability from pursuits that involve crashes or injuries.
“The balance has shifted too far toward police immunity,” Aanestad said during the hearing, held to shape Senate Bill 718. Called “Kristie’s Law,” the bill is named after Kristie Priano, a 15-year old Chico student who was killed as an innocent bystander during a police pursuit in 2002.
The bill, co-written by Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, would ban chases by more than two squad cars, prohibit motorcycles from taking part in a pursuit once squad cars are following a suspect, and prohibit relatively aggressive tactics, such as ramming the fleeing vehicle unless authorized by a supervisor.
But the main sticking point Wednesday was another of the bill’s regulations: That officers who do not follow this policy lose their current immunity from lawsuits if they are ruled to have acted in bad faith or gross negligence.
Many law enforcement agencies across the state have opposed the bill, saying that it would encourage suspects to run from police and make officers liable for the decisions made by criminals.
Wednesday’s hearing, attended by several law enforcement members, was held for Aanestad to try and come to an agreement with law enforcement agencies on a bill that they would agree with. Now, he will take several days to possibly change the language of the bill and continue with trying to pass the bill into law.
Grass Valley Police Chief John Foster attended the hearing and said afterward that higher sentences for running from police, tighter policies and more training are the beginning of the answer. But he opposed making officers liable for damage from chases.
“We should not be discussing immunity,” Foster said. “Will additional sentences be the magic cure? No. Will they help? Yes.”
Kristie Priano’s mother, Candy Priano, spoke Wednesday to Aanestad and other senators on the committee. She said that had Chico police officers followed their pursuit policy, her daughter would still be alive today.
“I miss everything about my Kristie,” she said. “Her laugh, her stubbornness, her hugs – I was supposed to have those hugs for the rest of my life.”
“It is my hope that we will all work together to prevent the loss of innocent life,” she said. “This is not about penalizing police. It is about saving lives.”
Former Bellevue, Wash., Police Chief D.P. Van Blaricom also spoke at the hearing and agreed with Priano that most law enforcement agencies have good pursuit polices, but that officers do not always follow the guidelines because they either do not understand them or know that their immunity will cover them.
“I was involved in a pursuit as a young officer. I watched two people die – the driver of the vehicle I was chasing and the driver of another vehicle that was crossing the intersection,” Blaricom said.
He said the only crime that the person he was chasing had committed was driving 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Wayne Bilowit testified that his department began experimenting with a more restrictive chase policy in 1996.
“We only chase vehicles involved in felonies, misdemeanors where guns are used and drunk drivers,” he said.
Before 1998, he said, the department averaged 500 pursuits a year. Since then, that number has dropped to about 200 pursuits annually, he said.
California Highway Patrol Officer Scott Howland, like Foster, said that while better training and higher sentences for those who run from police are good ideas, taking law enforcement’s immunity away will only make it more difficult for police to do their jobs.
“The decision to flee is made by the suspect, not by the officer,” he said. “Our officers agree we need to be held accountable – but not to be held responsible for the action of a suspect.”
Aanestad dismissed that idea and said that fatal accidents can only be prevented if officers lose their immunity and policies are tightened.
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