Theater of the Near-Real: Cop Chases in L.A.

woman driver

It’s completely weird.

They can go on forever, the only time Southern California TV stations never break for commercials.  The first one on Monday morning lasted more than two hours.  Later in the day, a second one lasted two hours.

It sounds mind-numbing.  Helicopter cameras track a single car speeding down interstates and freeways while a reporter estimates the speed of the vehicle, the nature of the roads coming up, the risks the driver is running, the time elapsed in the pursuit, and any other drivel he or she can dream up to fill the time.

The chopper reporters like to speculate if the police will deploy the dreaded “spike strips,” the kind that rental car lots use with signs that say DON’T BACK UP OR THE WORLD WILL END!  By puncturing the fugitive’s tires, the spike strips add the spice of watching someone try to speed on metal wheel rims, a strategy doomed to bright sparking failure.  Spike strips are tricky, though.  You don’t want innocent civilians driving over them at high speeds.

The cops generally don’t get crazy during these feature presentations.  They know they’re on TV.  They stay close, waiting for the driver to run out of gas or adrenaline.

The final apprehension is the most dangerous moment.  After being surrounded by squad cars, the first driver on Monday, a woman, just sat in her locked car with the tinted windows up.  The police had to punch out the window to shout orders at her.  If I had been one of those officers, I would have been seriously keyed up.

The thing is, most of the drivers haven’t done anything real bad, certainly nothing that 95 percent of the television viewers haven’t done in the last six months.  They’ve been driving erratically.  Check.  They might have imbibed an extra brew or two before getting behind the wheel.  Check.  They are often distraught over something gone wrong in their lives.  Check.

But these people make the terrible decision that when a police car summons them to pull over, the smart move is to floor it and head for Encino or San Diego or Fullerton or wherever they imagine they know the roads better than the cops do.  What are they thinking?

When they run, the TV choppers swarm like gnats to bring uninterrupted coverage of these non-events.

Nowhere else in the world does this happen — that is, nowhere else in the world do thousands of people sit transfixed by this compelling circus of the unimportant.  It started with O.J. Simpson and the Ford Bronco chase in 1994, but it shows no sign of letting up.

Nobody draws a crowd like OJ Simpson did on June 17, 1994.

Nobody draws a crowd like OJ Simpson did on June 17, 1994.

On Monday, during an eight-hour stretch in a hospital waiting room (you don’t want to know the details and I don’t care to recount them), I watched two of these weird spectacles.  God help me, I couldn’t look away.  It combined elements of a California Tour de France — hey, look, that’s Burbank! — with Hawaii Five-O (“Book ’em, Dano, failure to signal”).

And at its core is the compelling realization that the poor sap behind the wheel, who could be you if you lost a few dozen IQ points overnight, is totally messing up his or her life, live!, on regional TV!

One question, of course, is why L.A.?  Mary Melton in Los Angeles Magazine offered some answers four months ago:  “the LAPD’s aggressive pursuit policy (which is under review by the police commission), the city’s horizontality, an abundance of freeways, advances in camera technology, and a competitive TV news market that encourages imitation rather than innovation.”  She left out the nice weather, which makes for clear flying weather and sharp camera images.

But let’s not overthink this thing.  It’s great TV.  Next time you’re in LA, check it out.  For that matter, you can live-stream it on the device you’re looking at right now.


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