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Police make quick decisions on pursuits, which can turn deadly

Forty-one people died from police pursuits in California during 2020 – making it the deadliest year for chases involving law enforcement since 2006 when a state law meant to improve safety took effect.

In those 15 years through 2020, a Southern California News Group analysis of data from the California Highway Patrol shows, 476 people were killed:

•281 drivers fleeing police

•94 passengers in suspect vehicles

•91 bystanders

•10 police officers

Meanwhile, collisions occurred in about a quarter of the 109,941 pursuits, with more than 15,000 people suffering injuries.

And the number of deaths and injuries could be higher. The CHP’s data depends on police agencies submitting reports on their pursuits as required by state law, but the analysis shows that an undetermined number either weren’t properly sent in or compiled.

In 2002, Candy Priano’s 15-year-old daughter, Kristie, was killed when Chico police went after a teenager who stole her mom’s RAV-4, in part inspiring the safety law. Priano’s husband was driving Kristie to her high school basketball game when the fleeing teen struck their minivan.

Five years later Candy Priano founded Pursuit Safety, a nonprofit that aims to reduce the number of deaths and injuries in law-enforcement chases.

“One is too many,” Candy Priano said. “Especially when you’re talking about nonviolent suspects, and when you’re chasing someone for only a property crime.

“When they see a car on the street,” she said of officers, “like a blue pickup, they shouldn’t see a blue pickup. They should see a father going to work. When they see a white minivan, they shouldn’t see a white minivan – they should see a mother taking her daughter to school.”

Priano said police aren’t at fault for pulling someone over, but the decision to chase after someone who drives off is what needs to be looked at: “And they tell you they watch for traffic and weather, but [deaths] still keep happening, so that strategy isn’t working.”


Under department policies and statewide guidelines, officers are to be trained to know when to hit the sirens and lights and chase after drivers — and when to just let them go.

“There’s an interest from the public to catch and capture an individual that has committed a serious crime and that we do so responsibly,” said Long Beach Sgt. Paul Gallo, who is in the department’s training division. “Society will have an expectation that we don’t look the other way.”

Sometimes, the police are going after someone unlawfully carrying a weapon or a suspect in a homicide. More often officers are pursuing a motorist for a traffic violation such as speeding, an expired vehicle registration, or running a traffic light or a stop sign. Many suspects were driving a stolen vehicle.

“A lot of people say, ‘It’s a minor violation, why pursue them?’ ” said Amber Wright, a CHP officer and spokeswoman. “Sometimes it’s more than just no registration. We don’t know what this person is running from.”

Hemet police investigate a crash that happened at the end of a pursuit on Nov. 28, 2020. One person was killed and two others — including the 15-year-old driver — were injured when the car rolled over on Devonshire Avenue near Lyon Street, police said. (Timothy Franzese, Public Safety Incidents)=

Under California law, when considering a pursuit, an officer is to weigh the danger a suspect may pose to the public if allowed to get away versus the danger the pursuit presents. Factors can include the time of day, whether in a residential neighborhood or if a school is nearby, the number of pedestrians about, an officer’s familiarity with the area, and weather and road conditions.

That balance test is taken in seconds.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on while the situation is unfolding,” said Cpl. Danny Garcia of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which runs a regional pursuit-training center. “That’s why pursuits are high-stress situations.”

When officers do pursue, the lights oftentimes flash and the sirens whine – they have entered “Code 3.”

“Accidents still happen, but we tell our officers Code 3 driving is our safest driving,” Anaheim Sgt. Shane Carringer said. “You really need to be in the game.”

Agencies’ policies guiding officers’ decisions on when to give chase vary.

Many police departments, including Anaheim’s and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, allow officers to use their discretion.

Long Beach police tell their officers to initiate pursuits when there is suspicion that the individual has committed a felony or is about to or is impaired. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department holds a similar standard.

The Los Angeles Police Department tells its officers to not pursue a driver for only a minor driving offense or if the motorist just didn’t pull over.

Elsewhere in the U.S., some cities hold even stricter standards. The Milwaukee and Dallas police departments instruct their officers to chase only when an individual has committed a violent felony or may be in the act of doing so.

The Atlanta Police Department famously suspended all vehicle pursuits at the start of 2020 after two tragedies, including one in which teens chased by officers for driving a stolen SUV struck and killed a man on his way to pick up medications at a pharmacy for his disabled son. By year’s end, though, Atlanta police resumed chases but only when someone is suspected of certain felonies, such as for murder, aggravated assault, kidnapping or manslaughter.


One May night in 2020 after 11 p.m., Jose Hernandez, 32, was out walking his dog in Long Beach. Police were after a Mercedes-Benz mini SUV with a suspect accused of stealing pot plants from a licensed dispensary.

Hernandez and his dog stepped into a crosswalk on Sixth Street at Magnolia Avenue and that SUV ran a red light and plowed into them at 90 mph, killing both, authorities said.

Police had already arrested three other suspects and, Long Beach police wrote in the traffic collision report, the intersection is known to have “high pedestrian activity.”



A year earlier, just several miles away, Jessica Bingaman, 41, died after a man driving a suspected stolen van, chased by Long Beach police, ran a stop sign and rammed into her car at 11:30 a.m., authorities said. The mother of an 11-year-old, she was a dog sitter, and five of the six dogs with her were also killed.

Bingaman’s mother, DonAnn Lawson, said police should not have been pursuing a suspect at high speeds in a residential area, and not for just a stolen vehicle. Lawson said an officer told her the suspect was speeding when he crashed into her daughter’s vehicle.

“Why did they have to pursue?” she said. “What did he do that was earth-shattering that they had to do this in a residential section?

“Did he kill somebody? No. Did he rape somebody? No. Did he kidnap a kid? That would be the one thing I feel they would have to chase someone,” she said. “But somebody was picked up on a theft charge. That’s my question: ‘Why?’”

In a claim filed against the city, Lawson’s attorney said Long Beach police knew who they were chasing and could have found him later. Lawson said an officer told her police knew the suspect’s identity.

In October 2019, Edward and Gracie Contreras picked up their 13-year-old son who had spent a night with friends at Knott’s Berry Farm. A Jeep driven by a man suspected of carjacking pursued by West Covina officers ran a red light and slammed into the family’s car at an intersection, police said. The parents were killed; the boy continues to recover from leg and arm injuries.

Gracie and Edward Contreras of Covina were killed when a carjacking suspect fleeing West Covina police crashed into their vehicle early Saturday morning, Oct. 12, 2019, on Cameron and Glendora avenues. Gracie Contreras’ 13-year-old son was seriously injured in the collision. There is a memorial near the intersection. (Photo by Ruby Gonzales, San Gabriel Valley Tribune/SCNG)

“Even now, we haven’t gotten over it, and we think about him all the time,” Anna Martinez said of the step-father, her brother. “It’s just a car. Why kill people? They are not the first ones to die, either. All these deaths, it could’ve been avoided.”

The accused carjacker, police said, had taken the Jeep at knifepoint in Baldwin Park.

Attorneys for the Contreras’ family, in a wrongful-death lawsuit, said the Jeep could have been found later: The owner had left her cell phone inside, which is how police tracked down the Jeep in the first place. Further, the suit says, police did not have their lights and sirens on.

In November, police spotted a car in Hemet suspected stolen out of Desert Hot Springs and attempted to pull it over. The driver sped away. During the chase lasting three-fourths of a mile, the suspect ran a red light and swerved to avoid another vehicle, sending the car toward a sidewalk where it rolled over, police said. The passenger was ejected and died. Two others, including the 15-year-old driver, suffered severe injuries.

Police departments involved in the deadly collisions declined to provide further details, some citing pending litigation.

Officers have died in pursuits, too. In 2017, CHP Officer Lucas Chellew was chasing a man suspected of riding a stolen motorcycle. He tried to avoid a vehicle that pulled out in front of him at a busy intersection but lost control, crashed and died.


The casket of California Highway Patrol Officer Lucas Chellew is carried into Adventure Christian Church in Roseville, Calif., before his funeral service on Saturday, March 4, 2017. Chellew was thrown from his motorcycle and killed while in pursuit of a vehicle in Sacramento. (Autumn Payne /The Sacramento Bee via AP)


Before becoming a spokesman for Anaheim police in 2019, Carringer worked as a patrol officer for 14 years and has been in at least 50 vehicle pursuits: “Anytime, if I’m speaking personally, I get into a pursuit, I’m very much aware of what’s happening is dangerous.”

There is always a risk for an officer to enter tunnel vision, Carringer said, when pressure catches up and the officer is unable to make sound decisions. “I don’t want an officer who is amped up on the pursuit,” he said.

In general, the supervisor overseeing the pursuit, whether from a police station while listening to the radio and watching the moving location via GPS, or from a patrol car following behind, can decide to replace the officer with another or to just end the chase.

The data shows most chases ended without a collision.

About 60% of the time, police took the suspect into custody. In the other pursuits, law enforcement called off the pursuit because there was another way to make the arrest, such as tracking down the suspect later, or police saw the risk as too great to continue, or the suspect slipped away or died in a collision or was injured and required hospitalization.

In October, following a short pursuit that ended with a crash, Long Beach police arrested a man suspected of a fatal shooting from several months before.

The same month LAPD officers chased down a man who had carjacked a car with an eight-month-old child and his grandmother in the vehicle. Police arrested the man after officers used a spike strip that brought the car to a halt during the slow-speed pursuit through downtown Los Angeles.

And earlier this month police in Pomona arrested a man who was a “subject of interest” in a Kern County homicide, and suspected of a carjacking and previously evading police, after he led officers on a chase from Murrieta, through the Jurupa Valley, into San Bernardino County, and finally ending with a collision with a parked big rig parked at a gas station. The suspect suffered a leg injury.

The pursuit-safety law, which took effect in 2006, made it more difficult for police departments to gain immunity in courtrooms to avoid big civil payouts. Instead of just requiring departments to only have pursuit policies to gain immunity, officers now must read and understand them, and departments must offer annual pursuit training.

Police pursuits, and the deaths from them, did decrease after passage of the law, but after several years started increasing again.

Why is unclear.

State Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, voted in favor of the pursuit-safety law while in the Assembly. He plans to bring up those increases in the Senate.

“Is it a function of increased population?” Umberg said. “Is it a function of different police tactics? Is it a function of folks deciding that they think they can be more successful in evading the law?”

In 2020, according to the CHP data, there were 9,861 pursuits across the state – an average of 27 a day.

Source: Orange County Register

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