Dedicated to Sarah Phillips

Words to Live By

Battle lines are drawn over Kristie’s Law in California


Today (3/7/05) California State Senator Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) and State Senator Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley) hold a press conference to introduce Senate Bill 718. SB 718 would establish a statewide minimum policy for vehicle pursuits in California. The statute would be known as Kristie’s Law after Kristie Priano-a 15 year-old innocent bystander killed in a 2002 Chico, California police pursuit. At this time SB 718 lacks specific language about the provisions of the bill in hopes that it can be a collaborative effort between the public, police and the legislature. California Law Enforcement has already begun an effort to crush the bill. The half-truths, misleading statements and outright lies have begun to surface as they begin to flex their considerable political muscle.

It is hard to understand why they would oppose any legislation whose stated goal is:
“This bill would enact Kristie’s Law and would express the intent of the Legislature to eliminate any unnecessary risks that evolve from motor vehicle pursuits and to ensure that these pursuits can be conducted in the safest and most effective approach throughout California.”

One could possibly object to the mechanisms used to accomplish the goal, but there are no mechanisms in the bill at this time. One doesn’t have to look far for an explanation of California Law Enforcement’s vehement opposition to any bill that could even possibly abridge what a state appeals court dubbed a “get out of liability free card” in a 2002 ruling. (Nguyen v. City of Westminster). In 1987 the California legislature passed a bill that awarded Blanket Immunity to all Law Enforcement agencies that enacted a pursuit policy that met rudimentary standards. (See VEHICLE CODE SECTION 17000-17004.7) It is shocking that the legislature neglected to make training or compliance with the Vehicle Pursuit policy a requirement of the code.

The situation in California, since the 1987 bill, has degenerated to an absurd black comedy where agencies adopt what are many times inadequate and antiquated pursuit policies and then send their officers out to do whatever seems best, or expedient, at the time, regardless of what policy dictates. They then enjoy Blanket Immunity from liability when accidents, injuries and deaths occur. A simplistic justification of “This would not have happened if the suspect had not fled” usually follows and then it is back to business as usual. It is clear that the suspect is the “first cause” but it is just as clear that once the suspect chooses to flee that the resulting outcome has as much to do with the actions and decisions of the police officer as the suspect.

It is a fundamental principal of management, in police agencies as well as private industry, that policy implementation involves 4 elements:

  1. Policy development.
  2. Policy training and implementation.
  3. Tracking performance
  4. Accountability.

In California the only mandate is that an agency have a policy. It is hardly surprising that California is the pursuit capital of the nation, where you can be notified by your beeper or cell phone of a televised pursuit, or where headlong, uncontrolled pursuit is classified as a viable police “tool.”

At least one person dies each week and dozens are injured, many seriously, and yet California Law Enforcement refuses to even consider changes to the status quo. Their intimidation tactics with legislators and the silencing of dissenting voices among their brethren are scandalous.

One puzzling aspect of this is the introduction of Senate Bill 1015 by Senator Romero, co-sponsor of SB 718. I have read in newspaper coverage that it is basically a “counter proposal” from the California Law Enforcement community. What this bill proposes to do is to slightly change the list of elements of pursuit policy—while making no quantitative requirements. An agency can do pretty much anything they please. The bill provides for increased liability for suspects who flee (jail time) and specifically exempts agencies from liability, no matter how negligent their actions may be. In a misguided notion that victims seek financial liability from agencies, it provides for pay-outs from the California Restitution Fund for pursuit victims. Victims and their families do not seek restitution—they seek accountability. Restitution is for stolen camcorders, not for families who have lost a loved one.

Money is the cornerstone of civil liability. Significant monetary awards force agencies to enforce, train and track their policies. If the California Law Enforcement establishment would like to suggest another mechanism for accountability, I think all reasonable people would be willing to listen. One fact is certain—without accountability there can never be trust.
Jim Phillips, March 7, 2005