Those of you who are old enough will no doubt remember the slow-motion Los Angele Police Department pursuit of O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco in June of 1994. The “chase” (if you can call it that) lasted approximately two hours and covered 60 miles, mostly on the 405 after he became a suspect in the murder of his wife and her friend. A good portion of the country was glued to the live news feed of the 35-mph pursuit, running from Orange County and finally ending at OJ’s home in Brentwood, a suburb of Los Angeles. That certainly wasn’t Southern California’s first police chase and not even it’s first live news feed of police pursuit, but it put Southern California on the map as police chase reality TV central.
We may be fascinated by the “excitement” of a live-feed police pursuit, but these chases are usually at higher speeds than the O.J. chase, are dangerous, and more frequent that you might think. For the most recent year, 2019, in which the statistics are made public, the CHP alone was involved in almost 2,500 police pursuits. Looking across all law enforcement agencies in the state, there were over 9,000 law-enforcement vehicle pursuits in 2018. Something around 20% of these pursuits end in a collision, some causing injury, and sadly some causing death. In 2020, 41 people died as a result of a law-enforcement vehicle pursuit making it the deadliest year on record since 2006. (Statistics for 2021 are not yet available.) A portion of those injured or killed by a police chase includes innocent bystanders.
While audiences watch the live feed of a police chase, the anticipation keeps them glued to the real-life drama. How will it end? Will there be a spectacular crash? Will someone get hurt? Will the suspect get away? The drama can increase a network’s rating, often substantially, by interrupting the regular programming for “breaking news” or devoting much of the news hour to the on-going IRL chase. The live-action event even sends spectators who are nearby out to witness the drama. It is guaranteed to get viewers and thus following these chases with helicopters equipped with cameras becomes a competitive race between the networks.
It may be a live drama reality show to those watching it on their TVs but to the law enforcement officers involved, it is a serious engagement that always presents the possibility of an innocent person getting hurt or even killed. Law enforcement officers go through rigorous vehicle pursuit training. Before engaging a vehicle pursuit, the officer must employ the “Balance Test” in which an analysis must be conducted before engaging: If the threat to the public or officer safety greater than the immediate need to apprehend the subject, then the officer should not engage in the pursuit. The balance test considers 19 factors including things such as pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the area and the nature of the offense. If the pursuit is initiated, there are precise guidelines the officer(s) must follow. For example, how many and type of law enforcement units should be involved. What are the various units roles? The guidelines are cognizant of the data that shows the more units involved, the more likely there is to a collision.
Law enforcement training in vehicle pursuit includes training in driving tactics, aircraft assistance, communications, capture of suspects, decisions on continuing or terminating a pursuit, speed of pursuit and so on. Clearly this is not a Hollywood reality show we are watching when we tune into the drama of a law enforcement chase. That the media turn this into a drama – or a circus, some might say – desensitizes the viewing public to the real-life danger of the pursuit.
Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg is committed to defending his clients under every defense that is available under the law. He is always available for a free consultation to discuss your criminal matter. He may be contacted at his Irvine officer at 949-474-8008 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.