3 On Your Side Investigates: The Collateral Damage of Police Pursuits

Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 6:39 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - On average, someone runs from police every twenty-one days in the Jackson metro, according to an analysis of pursuits from the WLBT archives over a five-year period.

While most of those chases end with the suspect in custody - and few injuries - that doesn’t always happen.

Just six months ago, police in Pearl chased a man accused of speeding from Interstate 20 West to Interstate 55 South in Jackson. The five-mile pursuit continued onto McDowell Road and through South Jackson neighborhoods until the suspect, Brandon Andrews, struck a postal vehicle on Maria Drive, Pearl police said.

The driver of that vehicle, 32-year-old Brad Pennington, died minutes later.

Less than four weeks after that incident, Pearl officers chased someone else into another jurisdiction - Flowood -- after the suspect, Ryan Irwin, sped away from a traffic stop. Irwin fatally struck a man on a motorcycle, Steven Pearson, shortly afterward.

Pearl Public Information Director Greg Flynn said at the time that Pearl’s pursuit had already ended, and Flowood police chased Irwin after he initially stopped.

Flowood’s account of the incident, however, contradicts that claim.

“This is senseless. Our officers don’t like to pursue people. It’s scary,” Pearl Mayor Jake Windham told reporters on July 22, 2022, a few days after the first deadly crash involving his officers. “You go 100 miles an hour because of the fact that you’re trying to address a situation where somebody is violating a law. They’re within state statute and they’re within policy.”

That policy is important here because it spells out when officers are authorized to chase, what tactics they can use, and even when the chase needs to be terminated.

“Patrol officers kinda like pursuits. Police chiefs don’t like pursuits. They’re incredibly dangerous. They’re dangerous to everybody that’s involved, the police officers, the supervisors, the people that are out there,” said former Byram Police Chief Luke Thompson.

That disconnect stems from the fact that the officer is closest to the situation, Thompson added.

“It’s almost an emotional response that an officer goes through. I heard a highway patrol officer out of California call it ‘contempt of cop.’ I’ve turned my blue lights on, I’m telling you to pull over and you’re not doing it,” Thompson said.

Some officers take that to mean that the person who runs can’t possibly be innocent.

“This is not exact data, but I’m just gonna say 99% of people pull over for a minor traffic stop. The ones that run usually have sinister reasons,” Windham said on July 22 of last year.

Retired police captain and PursuitSafety.org member Thomas Gleason doesn’t agree with Windham’s reasoning.

“Take a 16-year-old kid that doesn’t necessarily make all the best decisions to begin with, and then scare him with a set of blue lights where he’s worried about the outcome. And you can easily have a pursuit and a death occur over that. That’s not worth it,” Gleason said.

3 On Your Side asked Thompson about that claim, too, and whether there’s any data to support that.

“I’m not familiar with any data regarding that specific element of it. It’s reasonable, though, to believe that as an officer when you know, an officer has the authority to, to stop a driver,” Thompson said. “Whether we like what that officer said, our system is based on innocence until proven guilty. An officer does not get to declare guilt.”

Nor does he get to exclusively choose whether to chase. Most, if not all, policies in the metro require the officer to reach out to his supervisor, relay the information, and decide whether to pursue.

Some agencies – like Canton and Jackson – only chase those accused in violent felonies. Others – like Jackson State’s campus police – don’t chase at all.

“We’re going to make sure that we do what we need to do, within the scope of the law, and within our policy and procedures to apprehend people like Brandon Andrews and get them off the street. Again, I want to reiterate the fact that Brandon Andrews was the person at fault here, not our police officers,” Windham told reporters on July 22.

Over the last five years, WLBT has covered 90 police chases in Rankin, Madison, and Hinds counties. Pearl police initiated more than any other agency: 16 in that timeframe. That means nearly one in five chases in the metro was an officer from Pearl.

Our analysis found the most common factor for the initial pursuit - traffic violations - made up nearly one-third of those cases. Violent felonies accounted for eighteen percent of pursuits over that timeframe.

And in nearly one-fourth of those chases, the agency did not disclose the reason for the chase.

Our investigation also found something Jacksonians have known for years: most of those chases go into the Capital City, which keeps leaders there frustrated beyond belief.

“Our lives are at stake when you pursue individuals through neighborhoods,” State Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said.

Bell tried passing legislation last year that would put more requirements on pursuit policies across the state, but it failed. Now he thinks the atmosphere may be different.

“I think it has a better than 70% chance of seeing the light of day. You know, it’s so unfortunate that someone has to die and be injured before we decide to change a policy or demand to change for a policy, but that is, unfortunately, the way of life,” Bell said.

Thompson said the decision on whether to chase is a multifaceted one, with split-second choices happening throughout segments of that law enforcement agency.

“When a pursuit happens, there’s a number of decisions that are happening at a moment’s notice. The officer has to make the decision to actually pursue, but then he has to continue to evaluate and make that decision to continue the pursuit,” Thompson said. “In most cases, supervisors are also making those decisions.”

That blueprint for those decisions comes from that department’s pursuit policy. The Pearl Police Department has one, according to officials.

However, when WLBT asked for it and the incident report from the chase, the city clerk’s office said initially the information requested could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings or various other exemptions.

State law requires them to tell us why they’re legally keeping those records from you, so 3 On Your Side reminded the agency that the incident report and policies are public record.

City Clerk Kelly Scouten then produced a heavily redacted incident report and an Attorney General’s opinion telling us “written procedures followed by officers” while performing their jobs are investigative documents, meaning they’re off-limits.

“I think the confusion is, what is a policy versus an investigative technique? Technique is where you’re gathering information. Whether you’re going to pursue a suspect into another jurisdiction, that’s strictly a policy. And that is not exempt under the Mississippi Public Records Act. The techniques are exempt, but not the policy,” retired First Amendment Attorney Leonard Van Slyke said.

Part of our confusion was that we were told to request it – by Mayor Windham himself. During that July 22, 2022 press conference, a reporter asked if they could see the policy in writing.

“You can contact our city clerk’s office about that,” Windham said, giving reporters the impression the policy was public and could easily be obtained.

“He was right when he said that. It should be, the policy. It should be public,” Van Slyke said.

3 On Your Side sent pursuit policy requests to every agency in Hinds, Madison, and Rankin counties. Nearly half sent us what we asked for.

A few, though, chose to hide certain aspects of the policy from the public by removing it.

The Rankin County Sheriff’s Department chose not to disclose many of its pursuit tactics or information on roadblocks.

Capt. Paul Holley told us he believes releasing that information could “jeopardize the safety” of their deputies.

Mississippi’s Department of Public Safety heavily redacted its policy, too, hiding the factors they consider when initiating a pursuit, concealing most of the responsibilities an officer has when pursuing, and completely removing anything dealing with the responsibilities of its supervisors or pursuit tactics.

DPS said what we asked for could disclose investigative techniques, endanger the lives of officers and impede enforcement efforts.

“I don’t agree with that. Because number one is, you can go into YouTube, and you can look up pursuits. You’ve got special shows that have pursuits, they do all the techniques that we train, whether it’s stop sticks, or pit maneuvers are any other type of things that they do so they can find this anywhere they want to,” Gleason said.

DPS also chose not to disclose when their officers should terminate pursuits and redacted rules on chasing into other jurisdictions. DPS said that this applies to Capitol Police, too, an agency that initiated more police chases than any other metro agency last year, with six in the last three months.

Van Slyke said they have the right to remove certain sections, but the two cities that denied our request completely, Flowood and Pearl, cannot completely withhold the policy.

“That’s inappropriate, I’ll just flat out say that,” Van Slyke said.

The biggest question here: what does Pearl’s pursuit policy actually allow, since the public isn’t allowed to see it?

Our investigation found a clue in all those other requests we filed. Some of those Rankin County policies were identical because those agencies lifted directly from a countywide pursuit policy drafted years ago.

That means there’s a good chance Pearl’s policy is similar to, say, the Pelahatchie Police Department.

Those other agencies weigh three factors when deciding to chase: whether a serious violation is involved, whether the suspect is more dangerous than the pursuit, and whether the suspect refused to stop.

In those two Pearl chases from last year, chases that led to the deaths of two innocent bystanders, only the third factor – refusing to stop – would have been satisfied.

Brandon Andrews’ initial violation was speeding. Ryan Irwin was pulled over because of a tint violation.

That Pelahatchie policy says the first thing to consider before you chase is the seriousness of the offense, even saying in misdemeanor cases to get the tag number and vehicle description so that person can be taken into custody later.

It’s unclear if any of that is in Pearl’s policy.

3 On Your Side asked to interview Pearl’s police chief one month before this story would air, but that was turned down. Greg Flynn, the city’s public information director, offered Windham instead.

Days before a scheduled interview, Flynn said the mayor would have to postpone because of pending litigation Flynn said is directly related to the city’s pursuit policy.

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