Deadly police pursuits stir talks among Mobile leaders

For the second time in a little more than a month, a police pursuit led to a tragic conclusion.

The most recent occurred on January 15 and ended after a vehicle slammed into a house in the 600 block of Stanton Road. Killed was the 34-year-old driver. Two passengers – ages 13 and 45 — were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

Christopher Edwards, whose sister owns the house that was damaged by the speeding car, wants more answers about pursuits and the city’s policies addressing them.

He also argued that policing in the city’s first precinct, a predominantly Black area of ​​Mobile southeast of downtown, is “aggressive.”

“That car was traveling at 80 mph,” said Edwards, an assistant principal at Vigor High School. “That’s aggressive.”

He brought his concerns before the Mobile City Council on Tuesday, and his remarks sparked a discussion about high-speed police pursuits, and how law enforcement handles sensitive situations involving innocent bystanders.

The discussion comes at a time when state lawmakers are looking to increase criminal penalties against people who flee police and major metropolitan cities throughout the US reconsider their pursuit policies.

“This is the second person to die in a police pursuit and they really want to know what’s going on,” said Edwards, referring to residents within the vicinity of where the pursuit ended. “A lot of people in the neighborhood want to know, and in the city want to know (why the pursuit happened). I want to know. When this happens literally at your front door, you expect people to answer the questions they have.”

Searching for answers

Lawrence Battiste, the city of Mobile’s executive director of public safety, speaks to the local media on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, at Government Plaza in Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

Lawrence Battiste, the city’s executive director of public safety, said the city is transparent about its pursuit policy, pointing to its availability on the city’s website.

He said he has been in conversation with Edwards about the January 15 pursuit, and invited him to watch bodycam footage taken at the crash scene. Edwards said he plans to watch the footage with Battiste.

“Every pursuit has (different) dynamics to it,” said Battiste. “Speed ​​is one of them for which a supervisor can terminate a pursuit. Every time we have an incident like this, we go back and review the policy and see if we can make a change to it.”

Battiste said the agency’s pursuit policy is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and is considered among “the best standards.”

But Edwards said more communication should have occurred at the scene. He said police provided few answers and little advice to his sister, whose home was damaged after the vehicle slammed into it.

“I’m not here to call anyone out,” said Edwards, adding that after the pursuit, “no one from the city came in and said, ‘I’ll put you up in a hotel until this gets situated.’”

He added, “Where is she supposed to stay the night? Is there a liaison to transition her through this period? When I asked those questions, no one could help her.”

Battiste told the council that the city is willing to help.

“I asked him from the beginning that if there are inconveniences his sister experienced as a result of (problems) with the insurance companies and if she is displaced, to get with me so I can figure out what I can do on the administrative level to assist the family during this process,” Battiste said.

Edwards also said he had concerns about Digital Siren, an app that warns people within a radius of a police pursuit to avoid the area. Battiste said last week that the pursuit alert app was “experiencing some difficulties” and that he was unsure how “widely it’s being used” in Mobile.

The concerns raised by Edwards also come one week after Battiste, when asked about the January 15 crash and the city’s pursuit policies, said that not enough people are holding the driver accountable for his behavior.

“We have a gentleman who is (34) years of age who chose to flee from officers,” Battiste said last week. “No police procedure can address that behavior. We have to hold those individuals who choose to flee from law enforcement accountable for their behaviors.”

Councilman Scott Jones, on Tuesday, agreed and said that city administrators need to “act with caution” about redoing the city’s police pursuit policy “because of people willfully and egregiously breaking the law.”

“We got to be careful when talking about policies and procedures about speed chases,” Jones said. “What I know from a fact is that everyone of these cases could have been prevented if the perpetrator had stopped.”

Councilman Joel Daves also said that city officials “need to be very careful” about “second guessing police.”

“The police officers have to make a split-second decision on a wide variety of incidences,” he said. “Their primary objective is to protect the public.”

‘What could we do better’

The January 15 pursuit occurred a little more than a month after an early December pursuit ended in tragedy when a 19-year-old backseat passenger was killed after the driver led police on a pursuit that was eventually discontinued because of weather conditions and high speeds.

The driver, 18-year-old Jh’Isaiah Franlkin of Prichard, faces charges of homicide by vehicle and attempting to flee or elude an officer. He is set to go before a judge for a preliminary hearing on Thursday.

“We’ve had one last month, and now this month,” said Edwards. “We are about to host Mardi Gras. Patterns are going to continue if we don’t come to the table, sit down and say, ‘what could we do better, and if this happens, this is what we’ll do.’”

Councilman Cory Penn said he felt that Edwards’ questions were effective in generating a community conversation about a “a lot of citizens just don’t know” about.

Said Edwards, “I feel like it’s a start. Of course, everyone has their views about what went on (during the January 15 pursuit). I appreciate the council and Director Battiste trying to help me with some questions that I’d like to know.”

Alabama has gotten attention for deadly police pursuits. In 2017, the website 24/7wallstreet.com listed Alabama as the No. 1 state for having deadliest police pursuits per capita.

Two years ago, the city of Birmingham was slapped with a $3.2 million verdict by a Jefferson County judge after one of its police officers, during an authorized police chase, slammed into a bystanders’ vehicle. Five people were injured.

State lawmakers could increase penalties against people who flee and elude police. The proposal, expected to be pitched during the spring legislative session, would make fleeing and eluding police a Class C felony, punishable for up to 10 years in prison. Eluding police in Alabama is currently a misdemeanor.

Officials in large cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Cincinnati have recently instituted policies limiting authorities on when they can pursue a vehicle. The Cincinnati Police Department’s policy, implemented earlier this year, restricts pursuits to only “violent felony offenses.”

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