L.A. officials want broadcasters to curb coverage of police pursuits
- The officials claim that broadcasting chases encourages suspects to flee; news organizations balk, calling the request an infringement on the press.
March 10, 2003 — Even before the famous O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase, live broadcast of police pursuits has been a staple of the Los Angeles television viewer. But a group of city officials want a slowdown on high-speed coverage.
Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn, along with Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, the California Highway Patrol, the Los Angeles Police Chiefs’ Association and the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners sent a letter Feb. 26 to news directors of television stations asking them to consider reducing the amount of police car chase coverage they broadcast.
“We strongly believe that reducing coverage of police pursuits will reduce the number of innocent bystanders who are injured or killed by drivers seeking media attention,” said Hahn in a Feb. 26 statement.
Officials are alarmed at the increasing popularity of these high-speed pursuits, which have made Los Angeles “the world capital of police car chases.” News stations frequently interrupt scheduled programming to broadcast live footage, which pull in high news ratings.
Officials asserted in their letter that live continuous coverage causes dangerous police chases to be looked upon as entertainment, and encourages suspects to flee in pursuit of instant fame.
“Dangerous suspects are acquiring instant celebrity status when they recklessly evade police over our streets and highways. This form of notoriety is life threatening and should not occur,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca in the press release.
“There have been instances where drivers look out windows and wave. Many [suspects] have made it abundantly clear that they’re enjoying the whole thing,” said Julie Wong, director of communications for the mayor’s office.
According to Wong, the officials are not asking media organizations to completely cease news coverage of police chases, however, they are saying that “coverage does not need to be live and continuous, and that discretion should be used.” Officials believe that there should be a collaborative effort between the media and law enforcement to help “reduce the notoriety and glamour of police chases,” Wong said.
Barbara Cochran, president of Radio Television News Director’s Association, said officials are completely out of bounds to request that the media restrict their coverage of the pursuits.
“The police sometimes depend on the coverage to help them in the pursuit of criminals,” Cochran said. She cited one instance where law officials lost sight of a robbery suspect they were pursuing, but were able to find the criminal based on camera footage that revealed where the suspect had tossed his gun. The suspect was then charged with fleeing.
“Reducing that kind of coverage would be an infringement upon the press and would interfere with customary newsgathering practices,” said Cochran.
The appeal to newscasters was prompted by a series of high-profile chases that resulted in death and injury and led to a revision of the LAPD pursuit policy aiming to reduce the number of police chases. According to the new policy, officers are allowed only to pursue suspected felony offenders, Wong said.
According to a Los Angeles Times report, the media has not shown any intention of reducing the amount of televised police pursuits. KCBS and KABC-TV broadcast a high-speed chase Mar. 3 — just a week after the Mayor’s appeal to the media — that ended in an arrest in North Hollywood.
News executives, according to the Times report, said that coverage of car chases is “measured and responsible” and a “staple of Southern California news broadcasts.”
© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press