On the Five, at Ten by Anthony J. Mohr
It’s 10 p.m. on a drizzly Friday night in Los Angeles. The temperature is in the fifties. My wife, Beverly, and I are home, relaxing on our double lounge chair with a red Scottish blanket draped over us. Cuddled next to us is Ben, the Lhasa Apso we rescued nine years ago. Outside, the backyard lights illuminate the palm trees and the ivy-covered hill. Our bedroom is the ideal place to watch another police pursuit. Two highway patrol cruisers are chasing a car that’s going over a hundred. It’s swerving from the carpool lane to the number one lane, then to the number three lane before threading through traffic on its way back to the number one lane and finally into the carpool lane. The action comes to us live from helicopter pilot Stu Mundel. His camera offers a top-down view as he peppers his audience with whoop’s and wow’s.
Mundel is the quintessential aerial reporter. After eight years on television at KCAL, he joined KTTV, Fox 11, and while he covers all sorts of incidents from on high, my guess is his favorite kind of assignment is a car chase, which allows him to unleash what are known as “Stu-isms”—whoa, boom, look at that.
I don’t root for the cops. Being a superior court judge for the past twenty-six years, I’m trained to be as neutral as Switzerland. I only hope the car chase lasts long enough to don my pajamas—Uh-oh, he’s on the transition, going onto the 5—brush my teeth—Going northbound now, he’s speeding up. LAPD is right behind him—floss my teeth—Look how fast he passes, trying to work his way through. Oh, look at that—pop a statin—Squeaking right by, that LAPD vehicle taking that outside lane, always doing a great job staying on this guy—rejoin Beverly on our chair, and gawp at the screen.
The chase lasts, all right. Looks like he’s getting off the freeway at, yes, it’s Paramount Boulevard. LAPD’s backed off because he’s going so fast. They’re handing this off to Downey Police. Stu talks like the announcer in the final seconds of a Lakers game, but this event is more like The Hunger Games.
On the right corner of the screen, the station tracks the speed so the audience can see, moment by moment, how fast a car is going. I saw the number reach eighty as a car bombed down a narrow residential street, which made me adjust my glasses and lean closer to the TV screen.
In 2012, the nation’s law enforcement agencies conducted an estimated 68,000 vehicle pursuits in which 351 people died. From 1996 to 2015, deaths from these police pursuits averaged one a day. In the last twenty-odd years, more than 5,000 bystanders and passengers have died, with tens of thousands injured. In March 2018, the Los Angeles Times reported “a string of police pursuits that ended in serious crashes across the Southland.” In one, a Dodge Ram hit a car, crashed through a wall, and landed upside down in a swimming pool. Three people, including the driver, died. Then came 2020, which according to the California Highway Patrol, was the deadliest year in car chasing since 2006. “Forty-one people died as a result of high-speed police-involved pursuits,” cites an analysis by a Southern California news group.
I’m not one of those fanatics who sign up for phone alerts and follow dedicated Twitter feeds—like @PCALive, @ChaseAlert, @LAPolicePursuit—that steer them to pursuits with the best potential for a crash. I’ve seen only one fatal crack-up. The suspect blasted through an intersection and smashed into a car, which spun into a light post. I winced. Even Stu Mundel suppressed an interjection. The newspapers said it took two days for the person he hit to die. Had the driver been before me in court, I would have meted out the maximum sentence. Or would I? In Judges College, they teach us not to make a decision until we’ve heard all sides—the police via a deputy district attorney, the driver, usually through a deputy public defender—and the victim(s), if they’re still alive. I like to think I’d be fair, but I have yet to try one of these cases.
Each time I watch a chase, my adrenaline and serotonin kick in, and I settle in for the ride. As I absorb tonight’s episode, the little boy in me hopes the driver escapes, and the jurist in me wants to see the driver in handcuffs. Maybe I’m not neutral, after all.
I stay focused while the police helicopter bathes him in pitiless light.
Beverly doesn’t watch. She’s reading a recipe for beef bourguignon. Our dog shifts position and then settles back down against her. For a few seconds, I wonder how he would fare in a pursuit. He’d probably stick his head out the window and enjoy the wind.
Very high speeds. It’s been on surface streets. It’s missing one wheel . . . moving very fast, now much slower, missing one tire in the back, but it’s been moving very fast. Going through a neighborhood.
One afternoon, while crossing Sixth Street, en route to lunch at Langer’s, a classic deli in the city’s second-most densely populated area, I saw a chase up close. Helicopters whop-whopped overhead. Someone yelled, “Look out.” I bolted for the sidewalk moments before a car barreled past, the suspect’s hands at ten and two, the way they taught us in driver training. I caught a snippet of the driver’s face—a trio of circles. Two marble eyes and an open mouth. Of course, he didn’t notice me; he’d channeled every joule of energy into a single goal: get away. Pacing him from behind were three black-and-whites, their lights on, their sirens wailing.
Live and in-person though it was, this race didn’t interest me. All I wanted was to eat my turkey sandwich and return to my courtroom. Only in the comfort of my own home do pursuits draw me in the way Bond films do, along with the chase scene in Bullitt. I need the contrast between raw danger—innocent drivers at risk, sirens piercing the dark, helicopters swooping in—and our cozy house on its quiet street with Beverly and me in pajamas and our dog in for the night. There, we’re safe, which helps me enjoy the scene. That along with Stu Mundel’s voice—so familiar that it soothes despite the hype. The juxtaposition between in here and out there makes me feel grateful—I am the privileged product of a life free from the traumas that make people (literally) run from the law. But the chaos entertains. That’s probably why part of me feels guilty for watching.
We know who the car is registered to—we know there’s been some kind of communication with the driver. But right now, this is still an armed suspect eluding officers. They don’t want to try to PIT the vehicle because the suspect may be armed . . . Luckily, not that much traffic. Really starting to move out again . . . This car continues to elude officers, and you can see smoke coming from that rear wheel.
“PIT the vehicle.” The PIT maneuver. Its official name, “Pursuit Intervention Technique,” is a deft way of pushing the front wheel of a squad car into the rear wheel of a suspect’s car, forcing it to turn sideways and make the suspect lose control. Law enforcement rarely uses this tactic, unless three squad cars are available to surround and trap the person. The method works best at speeds under thirty-five miles per hour. And it’s better than waiting until a suspect runs out of gas, which allows him (almost always a him) a second or two to open the door and bolt.
I can tell you, you can see the smoke from the car right there. Wow. He’s running on the rims already. One tire already gone.
Why do they run? Is it the fight-or-flight instinct, or something more? The answer eludes me. Okay, if they stole the car, I get it; running is their only hope. But if there’s nothing more than a bench warrant thanks to a missed court date, they must know they’re adding time to their sentences. Or do they? Does the average person read the Penal Code? Even if the original offense is an infraction, like running a light, flight can make them felons. “Evading,” the legal term for what they’re doing, can add at least a year in jail or longer in state prison. Do they honestly believe their gas tanks will magically refill and the police will give up? Maybe. No city mixes fantasy with reality better than L.A., nor is anywhere better suited for car chases than Los Angeles, thanks to its broad boulevards and network of freeways.
They’re coming up on Roscoe; looks like they’re going to take an alleyway right now. Take a look at all the officers behind this vehicle. LAPD’s doing what they can to keep the public safe. But they want this suspect in custody—whoa! They won’t block this guy in because he’s an armed suspect. Their concern is basically going to be public safety. You never really know. I am just an armchair warrior out here.
An armchair warrior? Really? Stu Mundel has covered dozens, maybe hundreds, of chases. So have commentators on other channels. These station managers know what they’re doing, interrupting news in favor of frightened people in flight, people who have no more chance than a kitten against a coyote. I know that; I bet we all know that.
Dan Niel, an automotive columnist at the Wall Street Journal, agrees. “We can’t take our eyes off this immoral behavior! We all know the outcome—he’s going to get caught. The odds are a million to one. And yet still, everyone gathers round the TV. We want to see the finale.” Will the coup de grâce consist of a collision? A PIT maneuver? Or—like many—will the story culminate on a side street where the driver bails out of the car and tries to run away? On one occasion, I saw the driver climb up a tree.
That must be why I’ve yet to see a news station interrupt a pursuit for a commercial. Said a friend once, “I get a perverse entertainment in watching it. Like an action drama in real time. You won’t get hurt in the wreck you know will happen. I feel almost like an ambulance chaser. I get sucked in. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t turn the channel on to watch.”
She’s right. If the city didn’t watch, the stations would broadcast something more violent.
In 2003, Starlee Kine, a reporter on This American Life, presented an episode titled “If It Drives, Go Live.” “On a typical day, about 400,000 people tune in to KCAL’s nightly news programming. The numbers quadruple once a car chase comes on. And when the chases are over, the numbers drop back down again.” Some attribute this, along with L.A.’s car culture, to the reason Southern California televises more of these events than any other place in the United States.
Not much has changed since 2003. On February 1, 2019, an SUV shot through a Huntington Park intersection at over eighty miles per hour and struck three or four cars. The SUV went airborne and lost a tire, which ended up on the sidewalk. Highway Patrol officers removed the wounded; the suspect remained in what was left of the SUV, all of this while KCAL warned how dangerous such driving is, how, at eighty, even a slight tap can throw a vehicle out of control. As KCAL lectured, they replayed the video at least six times. French journalists have a phrase for this practice: sang à la une. Blood on page one.
Is the risk of death and damage really worth it? Can’t the police copy the license plate, photograph the guy, and pick him up later? Even Stu Mundel acknowledges the danger, but danger is what pays.
Just going underneath the 5. You can see the smoke coming off that passenger side. Take a look at that one officer, doing some great maneuvering right there, driving around other vehicles, going into a parking lot. Oh, a guy on a bike. Oh, hit a pedestrian right there. Got the rear wheel, but didn’t knock the guy down. This is so dangerous to the public in general—right now he’s working his way through the parking lot. Most lots don’t have back exits; this one does. Working his way back onto Sherman Way. Now you can see the vehicle. The tire is completely gone, but the wheel is still there.
Beverly asks if I’m ready for bed. Not yet.
That car just continues to take this punishment. You can see sparks coming out of the vehicle. They still are giving the driver . . . Whoop! That’s it, truck coming the other way blocks him. That’s it. Oh, no, he’s trying to get through; that truck’s not letting him go. Officers got their weapons out. I don’t see any less than lethal. You can see the suspect turning the wheel, trying to do something. Officers getting around the vehicle.
Without further incident, police take the driver into custody. I wonder who among my colleagues will try this case. Probably nobody. Over 90 percent of our felonies resolve with guilty pleas.
Now I’m sleepy. The hunt lasted forty-nine minutes. Before closing her eyes, Beverly whispers, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” I say back. Is it me, or is our dog snuggling harder than usual against the two of us? After a trip to the Coliseum to take in a gladiator fight, did Romans coo to their kids, then hug their mates till dawn?
In April 2021, a speeding Dodge pickup truck ran a red light near the airport. At that point, he could have stopped for the police and pleaded guilty to reckless driving, a misdemeanor. But no. He raced onto a freeway, then back to surface streets, and kept going until he slammed into a white sedan, killing two people.
In the car with the suspect was a puppy. The dog survived, uninjured.
A five-time Pushcart nominee, Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared or will appear in, among other places, The Christian Science Monitor, DIAGRAM, Hippocampus Magazine, Main Street Rag, North Dakota Quarterly, Santa Ana River Review, Superstition Review, War, Literature & the Arts, ZYZZYVA, and several anthologies. Mohr has been a guest writer on blogs, including Brevity, and is a 2021 fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard. For twenty-seven years, he has been a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Once upon a time, he performed with the L.A. Connection, an improv comedy theater. This is his second appearance in The Coachella Review.