When Cops Can't Use Lights and Sirens
Sometimes police officers need to get from one place to another more quickly than traffic conditions will allow, which is why the cars they drive are equipped with sirens and bright flashing lights.
“But, Dunphy,” you say, “why write about something so patently obvious? Any fool knows that.”
No, there are in fact some fools who do not know that. Strangely enough, one such fool is a former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department who now sits on the Los Angeles City Council.
I refer to Bernard Parks, who served as LAPD chief for five years before being asked to turn in his cards in 2002, clearing the way for the appointment of current chief William Bratton. After being shown the exit at the police department, Parks ran for and won a seat on the city council, from which position he seems to take inordinate glee in throwing sand in the gears of the organization that sent him packing. The latest example of this is particularly egregious, given how it places police officers and the public in danger.
On April 1, in a display of common sense sadly rare in the LAPD’s upper echelons, the department enacted new rules governing when officers may drive Code 3, i.e., with lights and sirens. Under the former guidelines, only one police unit was permitted to drive Code 3 to an emergency call; all additional responding units were expected to punctiliously observe the traffic laws, even if it took all day to get to the call. So, even when an incident required several officers to properly handle it, those who responded Code 3 arrived quickly but were expected to wait as their fellow officers idled at every red light along the way. Officers were even prohibited from driving Code 3 when responding to a fellow officer’s request for backup. Only in the very rare instance of an “officer needs help” call was a single unit dispatched Code 3, while all the others responding were to proceed as traffic and traffic lights would allow.
Given the general state of traffic in Los Angeles and the great distances officers must sometimes travel, such rules were widely seen as nonsense among the rank and file, and they were just as widely ignored. Most supervisors understood this. When I was a young cop starting out with the LAPD, any supervisor who insisted on strict adherence to these rules might come to work one day to find a live chicken -- and the excretions therefrom -- in his locker.
But there were supervisors, chickens in lockers notwithstanding, who did enforce these rules, with the result being that some officers would exceed the speed limit and run red lights en route to an emergency, but even as they did so they would refrain from using their lights and sirens so as to avoid detection by those sergeants and lieutenants who were governed more by the rule book than by common sense. Tragically, this practice sometimes resulted in traffic collisions when other drivers, lacking the warning of siren and flashing lights, were struck by speeding police cars.
The new rules merely codified common practices long observed and recognized the twin realities that a) cops must occasionally break free of the traffic laws if they are going to be effective at their duties, and b) if they are going to drive fast they should, as California law prescribes, warn others using the roadways by flashing their lights and sounding their sirens.
Makes perfect sense, don’t you think?
Not to Bernard Parks, it doesn’t. To him, the new rules are a “recipe for trouble.” He argues that they leave too much discretion to police officers in the field, and he employed a little-used city law that allows the city council to pass judgment on a decision already carefully considered by the LAPD brass and the civilian police commission. This is but the latest illustration of the contempt Parks feels for police officers, and it offers a hint as to why his removal as chief was so roundly celebrated within the LAPD.
The issue has given rise to the latest in a series of verbal dust-ups between Parks and Bratton. Bratton brushed off Parks’s criticisms in characteristic fashion. “That’s just Parks being Parks,” he said. “Sometimes he forgets he’s no longer the chief of police.”
To be sure, you can search to the farthest reaches of the globe and never come across two men with larger egos than Parks and Bratton. But, unlike Parks, at least Bratton has a record of achievement in law enforcement that might in some way be commensurate with his ego. After successful stints as the top cop in both Boston and New York, Bratton came to L.A. and took over a police department that had been in disarray under Parks’s stewardship. After years of falling crime numbers, crime began rising during Parks’s tenure, while hundreds of talented officers fled the LAPD to work for other police departments. Crime began falling again virtually from the day Parks was given the sack, and has continued to do so. In 2008, there were 382 murders committed in L.A., the lowest number since 1969. By comparison, there were 647 murders in the city in 2002, the year Parks was let go.
The city council’s Public Safety Committee has already approved the revised Code 3 guidelines, paving the way for a vote by the full council. Whatever their decision, like most cops I know, I’m going to continue to drive as fast as reasonably necessary to protect the citizens of Los Angeles and support my fellow officers. And yes, I’ll be driving Code 3 when I need to.