Thursday, January 31, 2008

Letter to the Sacramento Bee

On Monday afternoon, a vehicle being pursued by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department crashed violently into a car carrying a family of four in Rancho Cordova. Two children were transported to UC Davis Medical Center, while their parents were taken separately to the Mercy San Juan Medical Center, over 15 miles away. According to the Sherriff’s department, the vehicle being pursued was being chased for merely failing to yield. Although the driver of the vehicle opting to flee police custody bears the brunt of the responsibility, some of the blame for this terrible accident should be directed toward Sacramento County’s vague police pursuit policy.

Sacramento County’s current police policy allows for pursuit in almost any circumstance, stating that a pursuit is authorized when “a suspect exhibits the intention of evading arrest by using a vehicle to flee or when a suspected law violator refuses to stop.” The policy also stipulates that certain factors must be considered when determining whether any pursuit should be initiated, continued or terminated, though these factors are not well-defined. A pursuing officer and his supervisors must weigh “the seriousness of the originating crime and its relationship to community safety,” as well as factors such as location of pursuit, weather conditions, volume of traffic, and time of day.

A poorly-defined policy puts entirely too much pressure on the decision making ability of the pursuing officer and their supervisors. A police officer cannot and should not be expected to make a life or death decision on the basis of such vague legalese. The current policy is such that if an officer makes the wrong decision, and innocent people are injured or killed, the county and the officer could face endless litigation. That is not fair to our already overburdened law enforcement agencies.

The current pursuit policy further overburdens law enforcement officers by stating that “[i]t is the duty of the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle to exercise that amount of care which, under all circumstances, would not pose an unreasonable risk to others.” It continues, noting that “[t[he immediate apprehension of the violator is no more important than the safety of innocent persons or the officer(s) involved. When it becomes apparent that the immediate apprehension is outweighed by an unreasonable danger to the officer or others, the pursuit must be terminated.”

In the case of the vehicle pursuit in Rancho Cordova, the pursuing officer and his supervisors decided that the seriousness of the suspect’s crime, failure to yield, outweighed the risk involved in pursuing the suspect down a busy street in the middle of the day. Hindsight lets us see that the safest option would have been to, record the license plate number, of the fleeing vehicle, if possible, and terminate the chase. This rational response would have helped to avoid a serious accident involving an innocent family. Unfortunately, the officers involved in the pursuit didn’t have the luxury of hindsight, and were forced to make a split-second decision most likely under the influence of a great amount of adrenaline.

We at believe that the Sacramento County Sherriff’s office must develop a progressive, well-defined policy that allows only for the active pursuit of those suspected of committing a violent crime. A properly-defined policy would take the burden of split-second decision making off of our police officers, and would result in a safer community. In Orlando, Florida, the adoption of such a policy has proven to be extremely successful. At some point, law enforcement agencies must decide whether it is more important to make an arrest, or to keep the community safe. If a well-defined pursuit policy was in place on Monday afternoon in Rancho Cordova, then an innocent family would not have been needlessly injured.

John T. Fox
Vice President
Orlando, FL


Anonymous said...

nice letter!

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