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Mark Clark is the public information officer for a law enforcement agency in the southwest. He is also a photographer and contributor to POLICE Magazine.
Patrol

Foot Pursuits: A Runaway Policy?

Has the L.A. Sheriff's Department's stance on foot pursuits actually changed, and what might that mean for deputies?

March 18, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

Last month, it made national headlines: "L.A. County Sheriff's Department Wants Its Deputies to Stop Chasing Armed Suspects."

Or so many words to that effect.

When various news outlets trumpeted Sheriff Leroy Baca's "newest policy," they did so with the understanding that patrol deputies in L.A. County would no longer be chasing down suspects known or presumed to be armed. Rather, deputies were to pull up short and coordinate resources so as to effect a containment of the suspect(s).

The catalyst for this change was a spike in deputy-involved shootings: a jump to 16 deputy-involved shootings from nine the year before.

"You don't have to go barreling in on every case and then find yourself in a position where you have no choice but to use your gun," proclaimed Sheriff Baca as he debuted a new 30-page booklet, "Split second decision: The dynamics of the chase in today's society."

The booklet, featuring eight different scenarios involving armed or possibly armed suspects, certainly offers some valid food for thought when it comes to the prospect of chasing bad guys. But something about the way this information was being presented - and the implications of its presentation - concerned me. What did it all really mean?

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has always urged caution regarding foot pursuits. To further drive their points home, they showed pictures illustrating the gory aftermaths of incidents that had claimed the lives of Lawrence Lavieri, Thomas Pohlman, and other deputies who'd initiated ill-fated one-man foot pursuits.

In hoping to deter other deputies from suffering similar fates, the instructors took pains to let students know that sometimes the smarter option was not to chase. One had to look at the totality of the circumstances, and perform a quick cost-benefit analysis. Among the salient points to be considered:

  • What was the guy wanted for? (Was it worth pursuing?)
  • Where were you chasing him? (Were you behind enemy lines?)
  • Could you catch up with the guy?
  • What were you going to do if you did catch him? (Would you be tactically and physically in a position to get and retain the upper hand?)

The aforementioned cautionary parables laid out a pretty good case for taking such things into consideration.

Throughout, the impetus for the rhetoric seemed to be nothing more than genuine concern for the deputy's welfare rather than anything else.

But the quotes attributed to LASD watchdog Michael Gennaco surrounding the February 18 press release conveyed a different impression. In a quote from the LA Times coverage of the announcement, Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, called the policy change "a step forward."

"It's intended to teach deputies to avoid gunfights," Gennaco said. "It provides guidance to deputies, and it sets a new bar for departmental expectations of performance."

What exactly was this "new bar" for performance? How was one to be evaluated against it? And was this really a new policy, something that'd been issued as a clear-cut directive for deputies to follow? Or merely a brochure containing food for thought?

The more I saw and read and heard of the coverage, the more it sounded like the department was more concerned with the prospect of killing some moronic unarmed suspect whose actions would virtually guarantee his getting shot at than it was with fulfilling its responsibilities to the public. It didn't make sense that the catalyst should be concern for deputies whose track record suggested that they were getting the upper hand in shootings.

Tags: Pursuing Suspects, Use-of-Force Policies, Foot Pursuits, L.A. County Sheriff


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