Review Board Backs Chase Law Changes

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday February 27, 2007

In the wake of several citizen complaints about crashes resulting from high-speed Oakland police chases, the Oakland Citizens’ Police Review Board has recommended changes to the city’s police vehicle pursuit policy and has set up a multi-agency task force to make further refinements. 

The police chase policy task force, made up of representatives of the CPRB, the Community Policing Advisory Board, PUEBLO, and two families who lost children in Oakland police vehicle chases, holds its first meeting this Thursday, 6:15 p.m., in Hearing Room One at City Hall in Oakland.  

CPRB Executive Director Joyce Hicks said that her agency “thought it necessary to conduct a review of Oakland police chase policy” following the receipt of citizen complaints “so that we can move towards the adoption of more restrictive pursuit policies that will prevent unnecessary injury and loss of life to innocent citizens, while still maintaining the department’s ability to apprehend suspects. We believe that the department needs to strike a better balance between those objectives.” 

Rashidah Grinage of PUEBLO said that her organization hopes that as a result of the current effort, “we will develop a pursuit policy that gives less discretion to the officers.” 

Currently, Grinage says, when officers either cannot or don’t want to get their supervisors’ permission to initiate a chase, “they simply pursue a suspect’s car but don’t call it a chase in order to get around the policy. It means any policy on the books is irrelevant.” 

As well as making the issue of a police chase a “semantic exercise,” Grinage says this practice leads to a more dangerous situation, because an official chase requires the use of a siren and flashing lights, while officers merely “pursuing” a suspect use neither warning. 

“That makes the situation worse,” Grinage said. “That’s where it’s gotten all screwed up, and has led to situations where innocent drivers have been hit by cars because they had no advance warning that a high-speed chase was taking place. The city should have strict guidelines as to when they have to activate their flashing lights and sirens based upon the speed of the chase and the distance from the suspect being pursued.” 

In its five preliminary recommendations released earlier this month, the CPRB says that the Oakland police department should restrict its auto pursuits only to suspects fleeing from violent felonies, and the OPD should provide more pursuit training for its officers, require more accountability for officers to adhere to its chase policy, should look at policies in other police jurisdictions, and should review the adequacy of its reporting on police pursuits. 

Unlike the cities of Berkeley and San Francisco, which allow for high-speed vehicle pursuits involving violent felonies only, current Oakland police chase policy allows officers to pursue without supervisory approval suspects who have committed any felony or a firearms-related misdemeanor. Oakland officers may also initiate vehicle chases of suspects who have committed infractions or non-firearms-related misdemeanors, but only with supervisory approval.  

The task force’s final recommendations will be presented directly to the Oakland Police Department, which will be solely responsible for their adoption, modification, or rejection.  

According to OPD records, Oakland police were involved in 125 police vehicle pursuits in 2004, with 51 percent of them resulting in collisions and 38 percent resulting in injuries to officers, suspects, or innocent citizens. The CPRB report on Oakland police vehicle chases provided no statistics as to the nature of the original offense for which the police vehicle pursuits were initiated. 

The push for a modified Oakland police vehicle chase policy is not related to a recent allegation by a neighborhood witness that a high-speed Oakland police chase preceded the auto accident death of an innocent bystander at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and West MacArthur Boulevard earlier this month. Oakland police maintain that no high-speed chase was involved in that accident, which killed a 41-year-old Stockton woman. 

Instead, the decision to recommend pursuit policy changes came after the CPRB received five complaints between 2003 and the present. Two of those complaints are still pending, one of them from the June 17, 2006 auto accident death of Jessica Castaneda-Rodriguez and Salvador Nieves Jr., the other involving a March 29, 2006 injury accident to Lisa Sidorsky. Castaneda-Rodriguez, Nieves, Jr., and Sidorsky were all driving or riding in cars which were not being pursued by police, but were struck by vehicles which Oakland police were pursuing.  

In the Castaneda-Rodriguez/Nieves incident, outlined in a Berkeley Daily Planet UnderCurrents column on June 2, 2006, the two young Oakland residents were killed in a car that was struck on the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and 90th Avenue by a van driven by 33-year-old Oakland resident Amiri Bolten. Bolten was being chased by Oakland police for a suspected minor municipal code violation and, later, for the suspected smell of marijuana coming from his van. 

According to the CPRB report, “at the time the pursuit (of Bolten) began, officers were attempting to stop the suspect for a traffic infraction—loud music in excess of 50 feet. As the officers approached, they smelled marijuana emanating from the vehicle. However, the police did not have any facts showing that a more serious crime had been committed at the time the pursuit started.” 

In the Sidorsky incident, Sidorsky was injured when her car was hit by a van pursued by police while she was waiting at the intersection of Harold Street and Coolidge Avenue on her way to get on the on-ramp to the 580 freeway.  

According to the CPRB report, Sidorsky “did not see any vehicle approaching, nor did she see the police or hear any sirens approaching. … After the van struck her car, it continued onward to shear a light pole. She observed that the van had struck yet another vehicle, crushing the other car. The van itself had overturned, trapping people inside. Several people in the other car also sustained injuries. Unbeknownst to Ms. Sidorsky.” 

The CPRB report continued: “The van was being pursued by Oakland police officers. At the time the pursuit began, officers believed that the suspect was driving a stolen van, which is a felony offense, but not a violent felony. There was no additional factual information for officers to reasonably believe that a violent felony had been committed.” 

The most famous recent allegation concerning a high-speed police chase involved the 2002 death of 22-year-old Oakland High graduate U’Kendra Johnson, who was killed when the car in which she was riding was struck on Seminary Avenue by an auto driven by Oakland resident Eric Crawford. Police said that Crawford was fleeing from nearby Foothill Boulevard after officers observed him participating in “sideshow” activities. 

While witnesses said that a high-speed police chase immediately preceded the accident, Oakland police denied that police were chasing Crawford when Crawford’s car hit Johnson’s. Johnson’s mother initially filed a wrongful death action against the Oakland Police Department and the officers who arrested Crawford, but later dropped the suit. In the months following Johnson’s death, State Senator Don Perata introduced and got passed anti-sideshow legislation which he named the “U’Kendra Johnson Law.”