Vargas: In pursuit of entertainment, viewers glued to the tube for cop chases


It just happened again.

My phone buzzed alerting me to a police pursuit heading northbound from San Diego County along the 15 freeway. I had the option of watching it streaming on my phone or live on television. I opted to watch it on television.

Within a matter of minutes, three different stations were broadcasting California Highway Patrol officers chasing a stolen BMW. In this case, the driver put on a show opening his sunroof and taunting the officers with hand gestures.

No drama this time, just driving the speed limit while using his mobile phone to talk to who knows who before the inevitable arrest and incarceration.

The pursuit went out of range and, one by one, the stations stopped broadcasting it. Eventually, the driver was arrested near the city of Baker, Ca., just miles from the state line.

It was some of the most boring and uneventful television I’ve ever seen. But then again, you never know what could happen.

In the past few weeks, there has been a shoot out, police beating, and another pursuit in which a suspect in a stolen taxi drove all over Los Angeles high-fiving cheering supporters and taunting the police.

You just never know what’s going to happen. Viewers remain riveted just in case things go sideways. It’s probably the same reason people watch NASCAR racing — we just can’t seem to help ourselves.

Southern California is the television police pursuit capital of the world. Maybe it’s the saturation of news media helicopters or maybe just the high concentration of knuckleheads in our area. Rarely a week goes by without a few pursuits being broadcast for the public’s entertainment pleasure.

Some will argue that broadcasting police pursuits only encourages suspects to engage in this dangerous and high-risk behavior.  I do believe there is some truth to that. Modeling of behavior is how everything from fashion to our music preferences is established.

Journalists will also argue it provides a beneficial public service and helps to keep officers accountable. Recent events lend some support to that point of view as well.

Either way, you cannot deny it is really good for the ratings. Why else would stations interrupt Judge Judy to provide the public with its latest dose of infotainment?

Once the helicopters have arrived, the chances of anyone getting away have pretty much vanished, yet they persist. It’s just another example of bad decision making.

Penalties have been enhanced to require mandatory jail time and, for repeat offenders, the jail time can be significant. In my experience, it really doesn’t help. The people who engage the police in pursuits have a long history of living without considering the consequences.

Their personal history is filled with examples of bad choices and poor adherence to social norms. I doubt they’ve opened up the penal code and considered the consequences of running from the police.

They definitely have not considered the danger to themselves, the public and the officers involved.

So I guess American culture will continue to live with the pursuit of the day as part of their entertainment choices. Given the viewership, I don’t think live pursuits will be going away anytime soon. We seem to have no shortage of knuckleheads willing to run from the police.

I guess each of us has the choice to turn the television off or change the channel but we just can’t seem to help ourselves. So I’ll get the popcorn and see how it turns out — strictly for professional reasons, of course. There might be more material for another column.