Los Angeles

Police Pursuit Policies Vary Widely

Concerns over safety arise each time officers give chase after a fleeing driver.

Nearly 13 years ago, Vicky Medellin was in an SUV with her new baby, Harley, in the back seat, and Harley's father.

As the family crossed an intersection, they were struck at a high speed when a police pursuit came to a crashing end.

“Before I knew it the car was spinning,” she said. “I jumped out of the car trying to figure out what was going on.”

Police officers were chasing a man accused in a stabbing when he ran a red light, smashing into the Medellin family.

“I heard a crossing guard screaming, ‘The hand! The hand!’”

In the back seat, newborn baby Harley’s arm was no longer attached to his body.

“I looked inside of his sleeve and realized it was gone,” Medellin remembered.

Two-and-a-half-week-old Harley Medellin was airlifted to the hospital.

“Watching them carry my son’s arm in a plastic bag in front of me was hard,” Vicky Medellin said.

Doctors could not save the baby boy’s left arm. Now, nearly 13 years later, he is a determined force on the football field.

“When you play football that’s all you want is a starting position,” he says.

Harley has no recollection of the crash, although he lives with the consequences every day.

“I just adjusted to having one arm and I don't really think about how would life be with having two arms,” he said.

It was shortly after the Medellin’s crash that LAPD changed its pursuit policy.

“We only chase people for serious crimes,” said Commander Andy Smith, spokesman for the department. “We don't chase people for minor infractions, speeding, things of that nature. Our policy prohibits it.”

In 2001, the year before Harley’s crash, LAPD was involved in 781 pursuits. Last year, that number was down to 344.

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That is a significant difference in the number of pursuits, but the chances of someone getting hurt remains about the same.

Eighteen percent of the crashes in 2001 resulted in injuries. Last year, it was 16 percent.

In California, each law enforcement agency is required to set its own pursuit policy, and they vary.

For example, in Santa Ana, officers can give chase for anything from a minor infraction to a felony.

“We take a look at the totality of the circumstances,” said Chief Carlos Rojas.

So what risks are considered when the decide to give pursuit or hold off?

“The weather, the speed,” said Rojas. “Time of day, vehicle traffic, pedestrian traffic. All that must be taken into consideration.”

Even emotion and experience, some believe, can be a big factor.

“If a deputy sounds very excited and inarticulate, seems to be out of control, the watch commander might shut it down,” said Deputy Sheriff Scott Hutter of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“The impetus for a pursuit might be failure to signal for a lane change, but that doesn't mean there's not something else that's been observed,” Hutter said.

For example, one Long Beach pursuit started because of a carpool violation, but ended with gunfire as the driver shot at officers.

“We don't know what they're not stopping for,” said Simeon Yarbrough, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol. “The stop may have been for being solo in the carpool lane, but you don't know what happened before.”

Pursuit policies differ, but the priority is the same.

“We don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” Hutter said.

When it comes to pursuits, many people can’t seem to stop watching, but Vicky Medellin can’t watch at all.

“Do I think that police chases should stop?” she asked. “Um, no, that's insane. People can't get away with committing crimes but I do think they need to have a line drawn in the middle to where…”

After the crash, Harley’s parents filed a $30 million lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles. It went nowhere because if a police pursuit is within policy, officers involved are not responsible for any damages, injuries or even death during the pursuit.

As for Harley, he said he understands why police have to give chase sometimes, but wants them to be safer for everyone.

“When I see those, I usually pray that no one gets hit or injured even the criminals,” he said.

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