NEW YORK – Police in Los Angeles are hoping that a new high-tech device will rid the city of its reputation as the car-chase capital of the world.
Patrol cars are to be fitted with a Batmobile-like gun behind the radiator grill that fires a sticky globule containing a GPS tracker on to the fleeing vehicle.
Officers will then be able to track the car by satellite instead of racing after it along crowded freeways. If fugitives stop to remove the tracker, police say that they will be caught easily.
"Rather than pushing them because they are going 70-80 mph and we are attempting to keep up with them, we will just basically monitor where they are going," said William Bratton, Los Angeles' police commissioner. "Let them run. We will just basically track them to where they dump the car. We do that now with helicopters."
Ever since O.J. Simpson's Ford Bronco led news helicopters on a two-hour chase a few days after the murder of his ex-wife and her friend in 1994, live coverage of chases has been a staple of local TV.
The number of high-speed highway chases in the car-crazy city hit 600 last year, and many ended violently. In one incident, a policeman shot dead a 13-year-old boy in a stolen car after a chase.
Last week, a San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy was recorded on video shooting a passenger who had been in a fleeing car.
"Banning pursuit is probably a good idea if all you care about is public safety, because if you ban pursuit, there won't be any chases or any risk to the public," said Geoff Alpert, the head of the criminology department at the University of South Carolina, who has endorsed the new technology. "A much better idea is to track someone and be able to catch that person later on without the risk of a high-speed chase."
Across America there were about 100,000 car chases last year. The Virginia-based company StarChase, which makes the new device, says it will not only protect the police and public, but will also save money now spent on helicopters and damaged patrol cars.
The device is similar to a paintball gun used in war games. The compressed-air launcher can fire two GPS trackers in case the first one misses the target.
Because most car chases begin after a routine traffic stop, officers can also trigger the device with a hand-held remote if they have gotten out of their patrol car when the suspect vehicle flees.
So far StarChase has been tested only on stationary cars, not at 80 mph. But its makers point out that most cars are at a standstill or moving slowly when the driver decides to flee.
"This is incredible technology," said Commissioner Bratton. "We are going to test it out. We are really optimistic that this may be one of the next big ideas in American policing."