The streets and freeways of Los Angeles have become the stage for an increasingly popular spectator sport: high-speed police chases.
On average, Los Angeles has 1,000 chases a year, and when there's a chase, there's a good chance it will be on TV. Stations treat hot pursuits as breaking news, and when they go live with police chases, they often see their ratings double.
"What it is is reality television at its utmost," says Hal Fishman, an anchorman for KTLA in Los Angeles. "We are fascinated with this because we don't know the ending."
Police chases are riveting, and they often nail dangerous criminals. But are they worth the risk to innocent bystanders?
Tragic Reality TV
Televised chases became a phenomenon seven years ago when 90 million viewers tuned in to watch O.J. Simpson in the now infamous white Ford Bronco. Helped by the development of special helicopter cameras, stations have been covering chases regularly ever since.
While there may be a debate as to whether chases are newsworthy, no one questions that they can be exciting to watch. And yet, there is a risk in showing real life unfold: the risk of real-life tragedy.
In 1998, viewers got more than they bargained for when stations broke into children's cartoons and afternoon talk shows for a live shot of an angry man protesting HMOs. Daniel Jones, a maintenance worker, then picked up a shotgun and pulled the trigger — killing himself on live TV. Jones' death was broadcast live by several local stations and by national cable network MSNBC.
The incident served as a tragic reminder that although chases may be exciting to watch, real lives are often shattered. In fact, it's estimated that about 40 percent of pursuits end in crashes, many involving innocent bystanders. Long after viewers turn off their TV sets, those on the ground can be left seriously injured or killed.
Noni Onossian was driving down Melrose Avenue with her husband on a visit to Los Angeles when another vehicle, being chased by police, collided head on with her car at 60 mph, sending her through the windshield.
"They came around the corner so fast and hit us," said Onossian, who suffered fractures of the pelvis, knee, jaw and skull.
As for the car that police were chasing, Onossian said, "He was supposedly speeding and he had expired tags."
Is the Chase Worth the Risk?
Critics say as many as two-thirds of all pursuits are initiated for minor traffic violations. And they say that police are too eager to give chase, despite the potential risks.
Onossian's attorney, Steven Yagman, said a police car can be "a lethal weapon."
"It's more dangerous than a gun because it can hit more people. It can hurt more people," he said.
In Noni's 1998 lawsuit against the police, the courts determined that under California law, police cannot be sued for the outcome of a high-speed chase.
"Is it so important to catch the person we're pursuing that other people may be disfigured and maimed and burned and hurt and killed?" saidYagman. "In California they never think about it because they can't be sued for it."
But Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief David Kalish said there is no need for lawsuits because existing police policy already holds officers accountable.
Officers, he said, "would be subject to discipline, including termination, if they violated a pursuit policy." However, he added that he "cannot remember a specific case where an officer was fired" over a high-speed chase.
Kalish said his department was involved in more than 500 pursuits last year. He said that in a "vast majority" of the cases, dangerous criminals were apprehended.
Still, hundreds of departments around the country have opted to pursue suspects only in extreme situations, and they say they've had no resulting crime increase.
New Car-Catching Devices
Police are also looking for alternative ways to stop a fleeing suspect. The "car catcher," for example, is a net that catches high-speed vehicles, but the device needs a fair amount of setup time. The "carpoon," being developed in Finland, actually harpoons a fleeing vehicle and drags it to a stop. And the "road patriot" is a jet-propelled skateboard that shorts out a car's electrical system.
"The only technological device that's shown any kind of promise so far is the spike strips," said Capt. Sid Heal of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The device is a strip that has hollow spikes that stick up, puncturing a vehicle's tires.
"In order for that to be effective, you have to be there first," he added.
Such far-flung ideas show just how hard-pressed police are for answers.
"What if we had no pursuits?" asked Kalish. "Society would pay an incredible price."
Onossian agrees that sometimes high-speed chases are crucial. "I just think that they need to change the way they do it," she said. "There has to be restrictions on it. Because people don't realize how dangerous it is."