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The State of American Law Enforcement - Rules of Engagement

Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?

October 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

While common sense eventually tempered such commitments for the Transit Authority, the theme of misplaced priorities continues to resonate throughout the law enforcement community.

The Vetting Process

LASD's Daniels notes that however disagreeable some officers may find certain policies, they aren't created in a vacuum.

"We'll try to catch ways a policy can be misinterpreted [before it goes into effect]," Daniels explains. "We run it by the chiefs who are going to be affected by it, the Office of Independent Review (OIR), department legal advisor, with an eye toward looking at the unintended consequences of the policy. We try to tailor these things through the eyes of the patrol deputy. The departmental attorneys may have a different view on it in terms of civil implications. The OIR will examine it from the perspective of how it impacts the community. The policy is part of the vetting cycle."

The vetting cycle includes an assessment phase wherein the department evaluates the outcome of the policy: Has it accomplished its purpose? Does it need modification? Or is it fundamentally impractical?

Protecting Officers Whether They Want It or Not

One policy that will soon go through an assessment phase at the LASD is the department's rules on foot pursuits. The new policy forbids one-man foot pursuits or separation of partners and is recognized as one of the most stringent foot-pursuit policies in the nation.

Asked for the rationale behind a policy that some see as draconian, Daniels points to the number of injuries and deaths incurred by both law enforcement officers and subjects incident to such pursuits. He cites the Tom Pohlman incident of 30 years ago as a major factor in tailoring the foot pursuit policy. Pohlman, working a one-man day shift, initiated a foot pursuit of a drug suspect who he eventually cornered in a backyard. The suspect was able to wrestle Pohlman's firearm from him and execute him with it.

Daniels makes the argument that the enforcement effects of such pursuits are not worth the danger to officers.

"We know we cannot conduct law enforcement with no risk. The criminals just won't allow it," Daniels acknowledges. "We try to get the minimum reasonable risk that we can. Another thing that we restrict is line of sight. If you lose sight of somebody, the foot pursuit is over. That goes back to officer safety.

"Again, the relative weight question comes into play: Is the tactical advantage that has been gained by the suspect worth the potential loss of a deputy's life? One thing we're well aware of through the field of psychology is as people become stressed and as they become subject to influence of adrenaline, just the normal physiological stresses of a pursuit, their judgment is diminished. Are we going to allow certain criminals to escape who we might otherwise catch? Absolutely. That's the price tag. What's the benefit that we get? Hopefully, fewer Tom Pohlmans."

Still, it appears that the policy has apparently failed to win the hearts and minds of the very people it was ostensibly developed to protect: deputy sheriffs.

Among the critics is Dep. George Hofstetter, a director with the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, who has found his union repeatedly defending deputies who've been disciplined for out-of-policy foot pursuits.

"If you see somebody you believe to be a bad guy and they take off running, it's almost an instinct to chase after them," Hofstetter said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "A lot of times you're not thinking, 'Am I in policy or out of policy?' It's one of those things that becomes ingrained in you: to catch the person and take them to jail."

Hofstetter is but one of many deputy sheriffs who see the foot-pursuit policy as an abdication of law enforcement responsibility. Many officers view policy makers as little more than pencil pushers who try to design something that will insulate the political powers within their department from liability while effectively leaving cops out to hang. It is the reason why many take any justification for a given policy with a huge chunk of salt.

Discussing amorphous policy phrasing such as "pursuits should be terminated within a reasonable period of time," one deputy defined that to mean "approximately one second before a traffic collision."

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