Police-Pursuit Bill Requires Real Teeth



Candy Priano

The SFGATE published this opinion article

When you bury a child, your life is forever altered. You spend holidays and birthdays kneeling beside a cold, engraved marker remembering warm hugs and precious smiles.

That’s how it is for me. One minute, my Kristie was a 15-year-old honor student laughing with her brother in the back of our van as we drove to her high-school basketball game. The next, she was one of hundreds killed each year across the nation in high-speed police chases, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nearly a third are innocent victims.

A fleeing teenager plowed into our van. She had taken her mother’s car without permission. Officers knew her identity and disregarded their own chase policy, continuing this pursuit through a poorly lit residential neighborhood.Six months later, I started searching for answers. I learned that Kristie didn’t need to die to keep others safe. In fact, the fleeing teen went home with her mother that night, while a neurosurgeon told me to pray for a miracle.

Today, I pray that our legislators will provide some answer. I am the sponsor of Kristie’s Law, legislation authored by state Sen. Sam Aanestad, R- Grass Valley, as Senate Bill 718. Kristie’s Law would allow police chases to pursue violent felons only. Authorities would not be permitted to engage in highly dangerous, often deadly, pursuits merely to catch minor offenders.

Law-enforcement leaders throughout the country recognize that many chases are unnecessary, because most suspects can be caught in other ways and are not worth the danger they present to officers and bystanders. Wide-open pursuit policies with no accountability mean more chases, more crashes and more deaths, according to a special report by the Indianapolis Star.

 I knew it would be tough to change California’s outdated and dangerous police-pursuit practices. But now it has just become tougher: Law enforcement’s meaningless alternative to Kristie’s Law, Senate Bill 719, is sailing through the Legislature.

Our legislators sometimes pass laws that do nothing. This bill falls into that category. It contains legislative findings concerning the dangers of pursuits, but no language to limit the dangers. State Sen. Gloria Romero, D- Los Angeles, the bill’s author, says the legislation would provide restitution to victims’ families for funeral and burial expenses. But victims’ families already receive state funds to cover these expenses.

Supporters also claim that the bill would increase penalties. But the “enhanced” penalties that would be imposed for fleeing as a misdemeanor are a major disappointment. Officers are adamant — and rightfully so — that fleeing should be a felony with mandatory prison time. Instead, Romero’s bill only allows for six months to three years of additional jail time — and that’s not mandatory. An officer or innocent victim must die for an offender to receive a mere four to 10 years in prison.

Another missing piece is stricter penalties for juveniles, who, my research shows, flee from police in increasing numbers.

SB719 would require law enforcement to adopt a pursuit policy, but this reform is mostly symbolic. Police departments must already adopt a pursuit policy to receive blanket immunity from civil liability. Romero’s bill retains California’s unique injustice of immunity even when the policy is not followed. It states only that departments must adopt, distribute and have officers read the policy. This reform implies that officers are not even reading their policy! Where is the accountability? Can you think of any other public-safety priority where thoughtful policy is developed, adopted, and then legally ignored?

And while Romero’s bill would create a statewide reporting system for police pursuits, all review and reporting would remain under law enforcement’s domain. There would be no outside, independent reviews of any kind. “The bill does not require testing or certification for officers,” says Geoffrey Alpert, chairman of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina and a recognized expert on police pursuit. “There is no policy review at the state level.”

The same problem afflicts the bill’s provisions for increased officer training. Without accountability, training is meaningless.

Would this legislation have saved Kristie’s life or the lives of other innocent victims? Regrettably, the answer is no. Senate Bill 719, at best, is an after-the-fact piece of legislation: after a child is killed, after a young father is facially disfigured for life from a fiery crash, after a mother and three teens are killed in a pursuit through a school zone at 3 p.m., or after a baby’s arm is severed. These are real-life tragedies of police chases gone very badly awry in California. All the victims were innocent. And yes, the families of these victims blame the people who flee for these tragedies. But just as true, Californians deserve a more preventive measure to ensure that police pursue suspects in the safest manner possible. Whether the bill is called Kristie’s Law is not as important as legislation that will save lives. Law-enforcement agencies throughout the country are adopting restrictive pursuit policies that officers must follow to save lives.