Police pursuits with fatal consequences point up differing policies

When police decide to chase suspects through city streets and on highways at a high rate of speed, there are multiple factors they're supposed to consider.

"Time of day, weather, conditions of traffic, condition of the person driving. It all comes into play," said Alameda County Sheriff Sgt. JD Nelson.

Bay Area law enforcement agencies have different guidelines about when officers are allowed to initiate a pursuit.

In Richmond, officers are allowed to initiate a pursuit for any type of crime if the driver refuses to stop.

Saturday night, an officer chased the driver of a Corvette for speeding and driving recklessly. The suspect driver ended up hitting another car and killing a passenger inside. The crash is under investigation, but police said it appears the officer acted within department policy when he started that chase.

Other Bay Area law enforcement agencies have stricter rules.

Oakland police are only allowed to initiate a pursuit when the person they're chasing is suspected of committing a violent felony. Speeding doesn't count.

Oakland changed its policy about a year ago, and modeled it after San Jose police policy.

San Francisco's policy is similar. Officers there are also only supposed to chase suspects suspected of committing felonies. San Francisco police are not allowed to chase suspects for stolen cars, speeding or running red lights.

Friday night, San Francisco police were chasing three armed robbers -- suspected felons -- driving through the financial district. The robbers, fleeing police, hit and killed a pedestrian.

Police say the reason for the chase did fall within department guidelines.

"In this incident, we're pursuing a vehicle we know is armed, we know the people in it have been in violent felony robberies," San Francisco Police Officer Grace Gatpandan said.

Alameda County Sheriffs and the California Highway Patrol have more liberal pursuit policies.

Officers for those agencies can pursue anyone suspected of committing any crime - it doesn't have to be a felony.

Nelson said the outcome each time, is different.

"We've had 10 second pursuits that have ended up being fatal and half an hour pursuits where the guy's taken into custody without incident," Nelson said. "There's no exact formula for this kind of thing. That's the tough part."

UC Hastings Law Professor David Levine said in the past decade, many police departments have made their pursuit policies more strict. Levine said chases are risky and can also be expensive if innocent bystanders are hurt or killed.

"There is a risk of liability. There is a risk that the victims will come around and sue the department and say the officers acted recklessly or negligently and put the public in danger," Levine said.

But Nelson said choosing not to pursue suspects also comes with risks.

"So what do criminals do? They drive as fast as they can because they know you won't chase them. That puts the public in a lot of harm, too," he said.

Just about all police departments require officers to notify a supervisor before they start a pursuit and that supervisor is authorized to call off the pursuit at any time.