A vehicle pursuit in Prichard last weekend ended with an officer in the hospital, but that’s just one in a string of high-speed chases involving the Prichard Police Department in recent years that have resulted in injuries and, in some cases, death.
While the city of Prichard has yet to confirm any details, initial reports from Saturday’s accident suggest PPD officers became involved in a pursuit after units from the Chickasaw Police Department chased a suspect’s vehicle into the Prichard’s police jurisdiction.
It’s unclear if the car was successfully pulled over or lost control and crashed, but the chase ended in a residential neighborhood and an unidentified officer was transported to the hospital with minor injuries. Authorities haven’t confirmed which department employs the officer.
Over the past three years, though, PPD officers have been involved in at least eight high-speed pursuits ending in accidents. Of those, seven resulted in injuries to suspects, officers or bystanders and at least three resulted in deaths.
In October 2015, Charles Dennis drove into 21-year-old Anteesha Banks’ vehicle — killing her and sending her 6-month-old daughter to the hospital. Prichard police had been in pursuit of Dennis for running a stop sign, and ultimately found a stolen gun and drugs in his car.
In 2017 alone, there were at least eight chases involving PPD. Half of those resulted in some kind of injury and two ended in the death of a suspect or a passenger in a suspect’s vehicle.
On Feb. 15, Decolley Waton crashed into a utility pole on U.S. Route 45 while being pursued by the PPD for speeding. He later died from injuries sustained during the incident.
In October, the pursuit of a man with active warrants for kidnapping, rape and sodomy was abandoned by U.S. Marshals and PPD units when they lost sight of his vehicle. But suspect Larry Lett-Hall went on to cause a three-car accident, injuring two bystanders and killing a passenger.
Across the country, the potential for collateral damage has become a larger part of discussions about police chases over the past few decades. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 1996 to 2015 “an average of 355 people were killed” in pursuit-related accidents annually.
The Department of Justice views those pursuits as “the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities” and has urged police departments since at least 1990 to adopt policies dictating exactly when officers should or should not pursue fleeing suspects.
Travis Yates is a police officer in Oklahoma who started Police Driving International and works with departments nationwide on pursuit policies and training. According to Yates, virtually every state requires officers to qualify with a service weapon annually. Yet, he said “the one thing that an officer does every single day, driving, is never discussed.”
“For the last 13 years, more police officers have died in vehicle-related incidents than in violent confrontations with a firearm. Sadly, this trend continues,” Yates wrote. “Deadly force and firearms training is essential on an ongoing basis, and so is law enforcement driver training.”
After a request from Lagniappe, the Mobile Police Department provided its written policies governing when patrol units should initiate pursuits and when to abandon them for the safety of the public and the officers involved. However, multiple attempts to obtain any PPD policies on vehicle pursuits and calls to Prichard Police Chief Walter Knight did not receive a response.
However, testimony from officers in a criminal case involving a PPD vehicle pursuit gives the impression that either no such PPD policies exist or they aren’t readily distributed to all patrol officers.
In April 2015, motorist Sammie Dennis seriously injured officers Benjamin Neilsen and Zackary McArthur when his vehicle struck their patrol unit in a high-speed chase. Initially, PPD officers saw Dennis fail to use a turn signal when leaving a gas station.
Dennis stopped and provided a photo ID, but eventually fled and a chase was initiated. He was charged with having a switched tag, driving without a license, numerous traffic violations and two counts of assault and criminal mischief for the damage and injuries caused by the crash.
During Dennis’ trial last fall, officer Joseph Walker testified that he and another officer maintained a high-speed pursuit despite having already obtained a photo ID from Dennis and a description of his vehicle as well as its tag number and registration information. Walker said officers had also received no reports of any serious crimes having occurred in the area at the time.
Dennis’ defense attorney, Claude Patton, asked if PPD had a protocol book related to high speed chases, to which Walker replied: “I have no idea what you are talking about. What is a protocol book?”
Walker said during his eight months with PPD, he’d not been issued any instruction manual or policy book detailing how to proceed in situations where a high-speed chase might be necessary. Neilsen testified he’d also never seen any standard operating procedures related to high-speed chases during his time as a PPD officer.
Instead, they both said the decision was a “discretionary call made by the supervisor on shift.”
However, Walker also testified a conversation about whether to pursue Dennis through multiple residential neighborhoods “never took place” on April 29, 2015, because “no supervisor got on the radio” at all when the officers reported Dennis was fleeing.
Asked if the chase was dangerous, Walker said “absolutely,” though he shifted the blame to Dennis for attempting to elude police in the first place.
While policies about vehicle pursuits can and do vary from department to department, it appears pursuing Dennis would have been a violation MPD’s protocols.
According to policies provided by the department, MPD officers “will not continue in motor-vehicle pursuits for traffic offenses, property crimes (felony or misdemeanor) or when the suspect flees for unknown reasons without the approval of a supervisor.”
It adds that pursuits should be immediately terminated if “no field supervisor or shift commander can be contacted to approve [its] continuation” or when “the identity of the suspect(s) has been established to the point that later apprehension can be accomplished.”