By Thomas Watkins
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — After criticism for a string of deadly shootings by deputies, the nation's largest sheriff's department told officers Wednesday to think twice before chasing and trying to arrest suspects who are believed to be armed.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department issued new guidelines telling deputies it's often better to contain someone considered armed and dangerous then wait for backup officers to arrive before taking them into custody.
The shift in strategy came after a year in which deputies killed 16 suspects, up from nine in 2008.
"We can do better," Sheriff Lee Baca said. "That's what this policy intends to do."
Current guidelines advise deputies to chase suspects until they lose sight of them then call for backup. The new policy states it may be better in many cases to hang back sooner and call for air support, canine units or other patrol deputies.
"I don't want deputies to just run after somebody, turn a corner and all of a sudden you are faced with a life-or-death decision," Baca said. "You have to be more tactical."
Three shootings last summer were of particular concern, Baca said, including one in which the suspect turned out to be unarmed and two more when deputies mistook cell phones for weapons then opened fire.
Steve Remige, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said he was still reviewing the new policy, but it appeared to differ little from guidelines already in place.
"Anybody who takes a look at this would see it for its face value as the sheriff's response to the public's concern about the number of deputy-involved shootings," Remige said.
The new guidelines are detailed in a 30-page booklet compiled by a panel of senior officers convened by Baca in September to study procedures involving foot pursuits.
"The practice of chasing to apprehend was a department culture that needed to be addressed," the booklet states. "In many cases, it may be safer to chase to contain rather than chase to apprehend."
Still, Baca stressed deputies would maintain broad discretion and give chase in certain situations.
"If the armed suspect is in a crowded mall ... and that person is shooting, then guess what?" Baca said. "You are most likely going to continue to put yourself at risk until you subdue that individual."
Law enforcement agencies frequently review their pursuit guidelines. As one result, police departments nationwide have curbed the use of the high-speed car chases that led to deaths of other motorists and bystanders.
Jim Denney, executive director of the California State Sheriffs Association, said pursuit policies vary widely by county. He did not know if there was a policy exactly like the one announced by Baca.
Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the county's Office of Independent Review, which assisted in the report, said six shootings of unarmed suspects by deputies were being reviewed, and in some cases officers will be disciplined. He did not provide specifics.
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"It's another good step forward in helping deputies understand what the expectations of the department are," Gennaco said of the new guidelines.