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The perils of hot pursuit 

The SLO County Sheriff’s Department proudly announced last week the purchase of 60 new tire-deflation devices called Stop Sticks, which are designed to assist officers during high-speed chases. Commander Scott Thompson says the Stop Sticks, which cost $60 each, will help end chases more quickly. (The average length of a sheriff’s department high-speed pursuit last year was about ten minutes.) Given the department’s record of such pursuits — 13 in 2005 and 11 in 2004 — the devices will get a workout that should prove their value.

High-speed chases have been a growing concern over the past several years because of the increasing number of fatalities and injuries to police and civilians. In 2003 California law-enforcement agencies were involved in more than 7,000 high-speed pursuits, resulting in more than 1,000 collisions and more than 50 deaths, a figure higher than any other state in the nation.

Though law-enforcement agencies throughout the state are expected to adhere to standards set by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), some agencies have established stricter policies for engaging in a pursuit. For example, though POST states that hot pursuit can be justified when a suspect disobeys an officer’s command to stop, the Oakland Police Department’s pursuit policy specifically states this infraction alone is not enough to justify a chase. According to the policy, “high-speed driving and other evasive tactics� must be employed by the subject before an officer can engage in a pursuit. Steve Kohler, a California Highway Patrol spokesman, says most police departments employ similarly enhanced policies. The SLO Sheriff’s Department did not provide New Times with its policy on pursuit standards, though Commander Thompson does say that failure to obey a command to stop is considered grounds for a pursuit.

Last year proved to be a busy one for local sheriff’s deputies. Three of the thirteen high-speed chases resulted in collisions, one of which involved injuries. That’s a collision rate of 23 percent, evidence of the inherent danger associated with such pursuits.

In 2002 Kristie Priano, 17 years old, was killed when her family’s SUV was struck by a vehicle fleeing police in a residential Chico neighborhood. The suspect was another teenager, out joyriding without a driver’s license. The police were aware of the suspect’s identity, yet continued pursuit. Kristie’s parents, Mark and Candy Priano, launched a campaign for a change to police pursuit policies that would restrict officers and protect innocent bystanders. “Kristie’s Law� would limit pursuits to known felons and those who pose an immediate danger to their surroundings.

While the Prianos were unsuccessful, state legislators last year did pass SB 719, which allows victims’ families to receive compensation for their losses, and holds fleeing suspects more responsible for injuries related to high-speed chases. It also calls for stricter minimum standards for all state law enforcement agencies. The bill went into effect this past Jan. 1. Regardless of law or policy, whether or not to engage in a high-speed pursuit remains a matter of discretion for the officer involved.

—A.M.

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