L.A. deputies lament limits on foot chases

By Stuart Pfeifer, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

Art no longer imitates life when it comes to that standard television police scene in which a brave officer races after a bad guy fleeing down an alleyway: In Los Angeles County and other parts of the nation, individual cops are now discouraged from chasing many suspects who run.

Stung over the years by the risky violence that often results when officer and suspect finally come face to face, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies are instead encouraged to radio for backup so others can help surround and capture the suspect. Deputies still may follow suspects on foot, but they must keep a safe distance until reinforcements arrive.

Police agencies across the country have enacted new policies to deal with when and how officers should pursue suspects who run. The Sheriff's Department policy, enacted in 2004, is one of the most restrictive in the nation. The policy states that deputies cannot confront suspects alone and should not split from their partners during foot pursuits.

The issue is particularly important because most deputies work in one-person patrol cars.

Many deputies say they believe the policy is too restrictive and prevents them from doing their jobs: arresting criminals. They say some suspects know that deputies won't chase them if they run and are brazenly taking advantage of the policy.

Sheriff's Deputy George Hofstetter, who has worked patrol assignments in Compton and Lakewood during more than 17 years with the department, said it's difficult for deputies to allow suspects to run from them.

"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. A lot of times you're not thinking, 'Am I in policy or out of policy?' " said Hofstetter, a director with the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, a union that has defended deputies disciplined for conduct during foot chases.

"It's one of those things that becomes ingrained in you: to catch the person and take them to jail."


A 2003 case

L.A. County Deputy Brian Bishop had faced the situation so many times it seemed routine.

Early one morning in May 2003, he switched on the lights atop his patrol car and pulled behind a Chevrolet Beretta. He followed it through a few sharp turns, then watched it slide into a curb and stall.

Bishop and his partner, Deputy William Parsons, stepped out of their car and ran toward the disabled vehicle. That's when the driver, Robert Dingman, bolted. Bishop took off after him.

Clutching his gun in his right hand, the deputy ran through the darkness until the suspect slipped and fell onto a driveway. When Bishop arrived, Dingman lunged toward him, so the deputy fired a single shot, killing him, Bishop said.

The usual shooting investigations followed, and Bishop was found to have fired in self-defense even though Dingman was unarmed.

But the Sheriff's Department faulted Bishop for giving chase, confronting the suspect alone and leaving Parsons, who was training as a patrol deputy, alone with Dingman's female passenger. Bishop was suspended for two days without pay.

"We're going to let people run away who should be taken into custody, and we'll never know who they end up victimizing," Bishop said. "It's frustrating and it's sad because it's the criminals who are winning now."


Restrictive policy

Police departments throughout the country have adopted policies that guide officers' responses when a suspect runs. Many of them caution officers to consider the danger of foot chases, encourage them to consider alternatives to chasing the suspects and advise them when to stop a pursuit, such as when they lose radio communication or lose sight of the suspect.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department policy is particularly restrictive because it advises deputies that they should not attempt to confront a suspect by themselves.

At the Los Angeles Police Department, officers are discouraged from splitting from their partners during pursuits but are not prohibited from confronting suspects while alone, said Lt. Paul Vernon, a department spokesman. They are advised not to chase suspects who are believed to be carrying firearms, Vernon said.

Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said Orange County deputies are allowed to use their best judgment during pursuits and are trained to avoid situations that could endanger themselves or the public. Quint said he thought the disciplining of Bishop was "ridiculous."

"Come on, this is part of police work. You've got to chase bad guys," Quint said. "What do they want us to do? Nothing? In L.A., that's almost what it's coming down to."

Merrick Bobb, an attorney who monitors the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department under a contract with the Board of Supervisors, has long criticized foot chases and the dangers they create for both deputies and suspects.

Nearly one-fourth of the department's officer-involved shootings between 1997 and 2002 came during or at the end of foot chases, Bobb noted in a report that criticized such pursuits.

Illustrating the dangers of foot pursuits, Bobb's report detailed a case in which a deputy caught a suspect only to end up in a life-or-death struggle.

The suspect disarmed the deputy and attempted to shoot him, but the deputy placed a finger beneath the trigger and prevented the suspect from firing. The struggle was so fierce that the deputy's finger was broken.

Bobb said deputies should avoid adrenaline-pumping foot chases and instead use helicopters, dogs and additional deputies to track and apprehend fleeing suspects. He said officers have been groomed by movies and television cop shows to believe it's unmanly to let suspects run from them. But sometimes keeping a safe distance and waiting for reinforcement is the best approach, he said.

"This is not a game of cowboys and Indians. This is about the safest and most effective way to bring a suspect into custody," Bobb said. "It's not by running after the guy just because you think he disrespected you.

"While I respect and praise police officers for being brave, I don't respect them for being foolish."

Bill McSweeney, chief of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department's leadership and training division, said the department is particularly concerned about deputies pursuing suspects alone. The idea is not to let suspects get away but to use a team approach in which deputies cover every possible escape route on the ground and a helicopter searches above.

"The department is always trying to strike a balance between a deep desire to apprehend serious criminals and making sure deputies don't get into something over their head that gets them killed, and that's a tug of war," McSweeney said. In foot chases, "the odds are that you're going to get hurt or the guy does something in the dark that spooks you and you shoot him. Even though you want to go for broke, it's got to be balanced."

Bishop, the deputy involved in the Dingman shooting, said he did not think it was unsafe for him to leave his partner. He said he would have abandoned the chase if the suspect hopped a fence, as he had been trained. When the suspect tripped, Bishop said, he had no choice but to confront him.

"He didn't get over the wall. Am I supposed to turn around and run away from him when he slips and falls? I still had my partner in sight. What, I'm supposed to have him attached to my hip?" Bishop said.


'Tying our hands'

On the day of the shooting, a warrant was out for Dingman's arrest on a charge that he violated his parole on an earlier conviction for auto theft and burglary. He had prior convictions for assault, exhibiting a deadly weapon and resisting a peace officer.

The deputies union was so upset about Bishop's discipline that it paid to air a few late-night radio ads attacking the decision, an unprecedented public relations move that underscored a deep divide within the department.

"They're just tying our hands ... and it's all about liability," Bishop said.

Roy Burns, past president of the L.A. County deputies union, said the disciplining of Bishop and new departmental restrictions on foot pursuits have frustrated deputies and left the public in danger.

"This is all about, 'We're afraid you're going to get hurt.' But you know what? That's part of the job," Burns said. "When bad guys run, they have a reason for running. Those people we chase ultimately can do significant damage to the community.

"They gave him time off for good, proactive police work. All it does is send a message to every deputy sheriff: 'Do not get involved. Do not challenge bad guys.' And who pays the price? The good citizen," Burns said.

Dingman's family claimed in a lawsuit that Bishop shot Dingman while he was running. The bullet entered Dingman's back, evidence that the shooting did not happen as Bishop described it, the family contended. Los Angeles County paid $400,000 to resolve the lawsuit.

Bishop maintained that he shot Dingman after the man reached for his gun. The district attorney's office concluded that is was possible that Dingman lunged for the deputy's gun, then turned his back and was shot.

In 1998, the Police Department in Collingswood, N.J., imposed one of the most restrictive foot pursuit policies in the country. The department took action after a series of incidents in which officers followed suspects into homes and then were ambushed, Bobb noted in his report.

Collingswood officers were ordered to refrain from pursuits while alone and to abandon pursuits when a suspect entered a building, when the suspect's location was not known or when a person had been identified and could be arrested later.

In the next five years, the department reported a decrease in the number of officers injured on duty and no decrease in the number of fleeing suspects who were arrested, according to Bobb's report. The department achieved this because officers more frequently called for reinforcement and used a team approach to catch fleeing suspects, according to a report published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

The new concern about foot pursuits does not mean that deputies and police officers should let suspects go free, Bobb said. They need to use restraint and take advantage of their resources, he said.

"Shame on you if you let suspects get away. But also shame on you if you blindly chase after someone and put yourself in danger," Bobb said.

The pursuit controversy changed Bishop's attitude toward police work. He has spent the last year in an office job, helping run background checks on prospective deputies. An appeal of his two-day suspension is pending.

"I'm less proactive because I'm worried the next time I do something -- who's going to second-guess that?" Bishop said.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved

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