This is a story about a pursuit I had on a quiet evening in LAPD’s Van Nuys Division in 1998. I was working uniformed patrol in a marked black and white LAPD vehicle. I was on PM Watch, which meant we worked from 1415 (2:15 pm) until 2300 (11:00 pm). Some names have been changed to protect everyone.
When I first got out to Van Nuys, I started out working on the Mid-Day shift. Van Nuys is in the San Fernando Valley and the summers are brutally hot. The heat was even worse because LAPD officers were trained to patrol with their front windows down so we could hear what was going on around us. We usually had the air conditioning on full blast, but that didn’t help much. It only meant we used a full tank of gas every 8 hour shift. After five days of patrol in the daytime heat, your body armor cover had an aroma that could knock a homeless person out.
After a few months, I finally worked my way onto a later shift that worked patrol at night. Night time was the best time for police work since that was usually when the gangsters and criminals started their work shift. After night falls and people go to bed, most of the cars out on the street fall into one of the three “D”’ categories: Dirty (committing crimes), Deuce (DUI), or Delivering newspapers.
I was new to the shift but for a few deployment periods, I was partnered up with Dave who was a good guy. Dave and I got along well, but we hadn’t yet established if we were going to become “partners”. This issue of having a “partner” could use some explaining.
We were indoctrinated from the moment we arrived at the academy that the best tactical situation was always with two partner officers and the culture dictated that you would find a partner and work hand in glove with that partner. We would often refer to each other as “Partner” instead of our first names and there was an expectation that partners would also interact and hang out off duty with each other. If I showed up at an off duty party without my work “co-employee”, someone would undoubtedly ask me where my partner was. The hard part was finding a partner who you could really call….”your partner”.
We were early in our patrol careers and we had been taught to handle policing like proper LAPD officers. We weren’t supposed to just wait around and respond to radio calls. Our job was to keep our eyes peeled and catch the bad guys out on the street before they committed crimes. Our focus was on officer safety and tactics.
LAPD’s uniform was a dark blue that was almost black. We were the only police department in the country that wore no shoulder patches. Our badges and name tags had been boiled to remove the protective film and they were polished to a high sheen. Our uniforms were pressed and our buttons had been “dipped” in chrome to make them shine. Our leather gear was shined and painted with leather luster. Our firearms were cleaned and inspected every week. We could shoot and run. We were eager for action. We were certified LAPD street monsters.
On this fateful night, Dave and I were parked at the 7-11 at Sherman Way and Hazeltine Avenue in Van Nuys, CA. We had just filled up our coffee cups at the friendly convenience store and we were parked out front. Dave mentioned to me that he was hoping to get off two hours early that night because he had some business to take care of in the morning. I was fine with it and figured I would just work the front desk until the end of shift after he got his early out.
I had just finished agreeing to his plan when a car came racing across the street westbound on Sherman Way right in front of our patrol car. It ran through the intersection a few seconds after the traffic light turned red and was going fast enough that it caught some air as it flew past us. I turned to Dave and told him, “That’s going to be my ‘greenie’. If we’re going in early, I’ll at least get a ticket before we drive back to the station.” (Traffic tickets were called “greenies” because our copies of the traffic tickets were printed on light green paper. Our watch commander encouraged us to write at least one ticket per shift to prove we were doing some traffic code enforcement out there.)
We poured out our coffees and I pulled out onto Sherman Way to catch up with the driver. After about a minute, we caught up with him and Dave hit the lights and sirens. The car kept driving. We followed for a few more blocks, hitting the siren to get his attention, but there was no reaction from the car we were following. The further we went, the less likely it was that Dave was going to get that early out he had been talking about.
As we approached Sepulveda Boulevard, Dave hit the siren one more time and then we heard the voice of one our shift sergeants over the car-to-car radio frequency (called Simplex). “Are you guys in pursuit?” He had seen us following the car and pulled in behind us. We had to admit that we probably were. Sorry, Dave!
Pursuit was a magical word once you said it over the radio. When you were in pursuit, you triggered a ton of administrative paperwork that would take hours to complete even if the pursuit only lasted a few seconds. Your worst nightmare was to broadcast that you were in pursuit and then have the car pull over. It looked like Dave was going to be earning some overtime tonight.
I took a deep breath and broadcast over the radio nonchalantly as if being in pursuit was something that happened to me every day: “9A45, in pursuit of a vehicle failing to yield westbound on Sherman Way approaching Sepulveda Boulevard, requesting backup and an airship.”
A busy radio frequency suddenly became silent as the dispatcher echoed our request throughout our division and neighboring West Valley Division. Our request was also re-broadcast to other divisions in the Valley. A few units spoke up that they were responding to back us up, but we knew that in reality, probably every unit in Van Nuys was on its way. Everyone would usually join in or parallel a pursuit in anticipation of the moment when the suspect might bail out of the car and we’d have to set up a perimeter to contain him.
It was a really strange pursuit. The driver (it looked like he was the only person in the car) started driving around the west side of Van Nuys with us following him, lights blazing and siren screaming. He followed the speed limit. He signaled for all of his turns. He stopped at all of the red lights. It was like we were pursuing someone who was taking his driver’s test.
Gradually, more units joined the pursuit and a long conga line of police cars just kept slowly following the driver as he took us on a scenic night-time tour of beautiful Van Nuys. The patrol car behind us started calling the streets over the radio as we pursued, so Dave and I just had to focus on not rear-ending him and staying ready in case he decided to bail out of his car. The airship soon arrived and followed overhead, shining its bright “Night Sun” spotlight on the suspect vehicle and updating the frequency on the status of our pursuit.
You might ask why we didn’t just hop out and grab the guy?
Well, LAPD had recently put out a policy that stated we were not allowed to to jump out of our cars and try to pull him out, so we had to wait behind him at each red light, eager to pounce at the moment when he decided he was ready to get out. The suspect began driving in a large circuitous path that would take us northbound on Sepulveda Boulevard and then back around southbound on Sepulveda Boulevard.
Up and down the boulevard.
And up and down.
Over and over.
Sepulveda was a six lane surface road and the street traffic was pretty heavy with civilian traffic. At each red light, we would be sitting behind the suspect with families in their cars stacked in either lane on each side of us as our lights and sirens were going full blast. The families would peer over at us, wondering what the heck we were doing. Eventually, I just started smiling at them and pointing to the idiot in front of us. What else could we do?
Things became even more surreal when we approached our border with Devonshire Division. One of the LAPD Devonshire units hanging out nearby to help us ran a license plate of a car and that car came back as a reported stolen vehicle (Code-37)! They then requested their own backup and airship and started following that vehicle. At one point, their following of that stolen vehicle passed us southbound on Sepulveda Boulevard while our slow speed pursuit was traveling northbound on Sepulveda. I had to shake my head. Just another typical night in Van Nuys.
Midway through the pursuit, the driver drove into a small residential area and started driving around that residential block over and over again as we followed him. One of the officers in the pursuit, Officer Bilson, radioed that vehicle registration indicated that the suspect might have family in this neighborhood. He had his partner, Officer Rudd, stop their vehicle and he got out to make contact with the suspect’s family. We did several more laps around the neighborhood at about 25 MPH and watched as Bilson talked to a family who were out on their front lawn along with every other resident of the neighborhood.
After setting the neighborhood record for most laps in a pursuit, the suspect then signaled, turned, and went back out onto Sepulveda Boulevard. Officer Rudd apparently got excited and drove her patrol car to rejoin the pursuit. Unfortunately, she left her partner on the front lawn. As the pursuit left the neighborhood, the light began to darken and the sounds of sirens faded. Officer Bilson was just standing there all alone with his new friends. As our pursuit slowly drove northbound, I could hear Bilson’s nervous traffic across the car-to-car frequency: “Rudd! Rudd! Come back here!” “Ruuuddd!” As we continued northbound and left Van Nuys, the sound of his pleading voice over the car-to-car slowly faded into nothing. I sure hope she went back and picked him up. It was a long walk from there to the station.
This slow pursuit had now been going for almost two hours. I was really happy that we gassed up our cars before every shift.
So how were Dave and I doing? Well, we had our windows rolled up because you can’t leave them down when your siren is blaring. The windshield was starting to fog up as our temperatures started to rise. The hilarity of following a guy around as he stopped at every red light was starting to even wear off for me. To add to the experience, at every red light, Dave would pick up the radio microphone and announce to the driver over the PA system:
“This is the LAPD. Pull over. Stop your car. This is the LAPD.”
After the fiftieth time he announced it, I had enough. I turned to him and yelled at him with murder in my voice,
“I swear to Gawd, Dave, if you say that one more fucking time, I’m going to shoot you myself.”
Dave started to respond but before he could say anything, I kept yelling,
“You don’t think he realizes we’re the fucking LAPD!?! We have a fucking helicopter shining a light on him! There are are three black and whites with lights and sirens following him for two hours and twenty other police cars circling around! I think he knows who the fuck we are! He knows we’re the cops! Put the damn mike down!!!”
Dave recognized the look in my eyes and sheepishly put the mike back. He sulked for about two more red lights as I glared at him, daring him to reach for it. We cracked the windows to let some of the steam out.
As we headed north out of Van Nuys, I realized our pursuit had now been joined by a fleet of news helicopters. Since the pursuit was being broadcast live on all of the local news networks, every gangster and hoodlum now ran out onto the sidewalks with their families and started cheering the suspect as he led us on our merry chase. It was like we were in a parade. I felt like I should be throwing out candy.
We entered Foothill Division and after about 15 minutes, the suspect started to drive faster and went into residential areas. He was turning off his lights and driving way too fast on residential roads, so the decision was made by our bosses to call off the pursuit. There was no sense in endangering innocent civilians when we really didn’t have anything on the guy beyond failing to yield and making me dump out a fresh cup of coffee.
We were told to respond back to Van Nuys station. Fortunately for us, the story doesn’t end here. Once the suspect realized we weren’t following him anymore, he decided to take a restroom break. From what I was told, he stopped in the middle of Foothill Boulevard and decided to relieve himself in the middle lane. And it was all being broadcast by a news helicopter.
The LAPD Foothill Division coppers were watching the news on the TV at their watch commander’s office and said, “Hell no!” They hopped in their cars, raced out there, and snatched him up as he was trying to jump back into his car. They transported him to Van Nuys station and I had the pleasure of booking him. It turns out he had come back from spending the day at Magic Mountain and he was DUI. I heard he was also the first person to be convicted under California’s new felony evading law.
After I booked him, I wanted to call my roommate to make sure he recorded my pursuit with our VCR from the news footage. As I picked up the phone, I realized I was so amped up from the whole experience that I couldn’t remember my own home phone number! I quietly snuck into the watch commander’s office and slyly looked myself up in the officer rolodex. I wrote my own phone number down and called my apartment. Nobody was home.