LOS ANGELES - The trial of O.J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, was described as “the trial of the century,” but what sticks most clearly in the minds of many people 25 years after the fact is the car chase that solidified America's unique and often troubling infatuation with police pursuits.
The ethics around live broadcasting of car chases has been discussed ad-nauseam in recent years. In 2012, a series of extreme chases all occurring in a short period of time in the greater Los Angeles area, most notably one in which bank robbery suspects threw handfuls of cash out of their getaway car as innocent bystanders rushed to grab it out of the streets, incited a fed-up Los Angeles Police Protective League to issue a statement titled, “Televised Live Police Chases – the New Bloodsport?”
Police chases and the aftermath are certainly newsworthy, but the recent live television coverage has had the feel of a sporting event – with accompanying colorful commentary. In these situations, the responsibility lies with the suspect for not submitting to arrest, the public to stay out of the way, the officers to use good judgment when in pursuit and the media to limit its coverage. We aren’t questioning the news value – when it’s over – and in some cases as a warning for public safety, but many times, and clearly in the latest incident, live coverage endangers the public.
The notorious O.J. Simpson pursuit was nowhere near the first televised car chase, but it was the event that gave the phenomenon global attention.
Approximately 95 million people tuned in to watch the June 17, 1994 broadcast of a white 1993 Ford Bronco being pursued at slow speed by more than two dozen patrol cars and half a dozen media choppers across more than 60 miles of Southern California, culminating with a surrender in the driveway of Simpson's home in Brentwood.
Orenthal James Simpson had agreed to surrender to authorities that morning by 11 a.m., but when he was still at large by noon, the police informed Simpson's lawyer, Robert Shapiro, that they would have to announce Simpson as a fugitive. Shapiro then gave police directions to the house where he and Simpson were holed up.
When police arrived, Shapiro and Simpson's doctors were still present, but Simpson had fled the house with his former college and NFL teammate, Al Cowlings.
LAPD commander David Gascon then announced in a press conference that Simpson was a wanted fugitive.
A few hours later, Simpson reportedly called 911 from a cell phone from inside the infamous Ford Bronco, which allowed police to track his location to the 5 Freeway in Orange County near the location where Nicole Brown Simpson had been buried the day before. Cowlings was driving the car and Simpson was riding in the back seat, allegedly with a gun pointed at his head threatening to commit suicide.
By 6 p.m., the chase was on.
Crowds started gathering along the chase route, waving from overpasses and highway shoulders as the Bronco passed by. Many of them held signs of encouragement for “the Juice,” which was Simpson's nickname, calling for his freedom.
Most people, however, were glued to their television screens watching the chase play out in real-time. Domino's Pizza had its busiest day ever (though it has since been surpassed) because so many viewers were unwilling to walk away from the live stream to make dinner.
A mugshot of O.J. Simpson is aired over live footage of Ford Bronco pursuit that captivated the nation on June 17, 2004. (KTTV Archive / FOX 11 Los Angeles)
It was a busy day for sports news — Arnold Palmer played his last round of golf at the U.S. Open, the World Cup opened in Chicago, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, the Knicks and Houston Rockets squared off in Game 5 of the NBA finals and Ken Griffey Jr. tied Babe Ruth for record number of home runs hit in a season before June 30 — but newscasts were interrupted to air the Bronco chase.
The pursuit lasted for about an hour and a half. Toward the end, officer Tom Lange spoke extensively to Simpson via cellphone to try to talk him down as the Bronco neared Simpson's estate. Lange pleaded with Simpson to throw his gun out of the car window and promised that authorities would let him into his home if he complied.
Simpson eventually gave up his gun and was allowed a few minutes to call his mother and drink a glass of juice before being taken into custody.
By the time it was over, more people had tuned in to watch Simpson's chase and arrest than the Super Bowl that year.
It solidified Los Angeles as the car chase capital of America and ushered in the era of national news stations even airing local chases — if they are exciting enough.
“Of course, viewers love car chases. They're exciting. So networks show them. They get ratings. And the reason they get ratings is that they contain, always, the potential for mayhem,” Hamilton Nolan wrote for Gawker.
The uptick in coverage has indeed led to mayhem and tragic events, including an incident in which two news choppers collided while covering a police pursuit in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2007, killing all four people aboard either chopper.
Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina who studies pursuits, told the BBC that the love of a riveting chase is embedded deep in American DNA, arguing, "This has been with us in America since the Wild West. A guy robs the bank and runs away on his horse. So the sheriff gets on his horse and pursues him. That's the way it's always been."