Editor’s Note: This story is one of three detailing the complexity and cost of police pursuits. The series was prompted by the Dec. 4, 2021 22-mile pursuit by Tusculum police ending with a crash in Johnson City that killed a driver of an uninvolved car.
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – It was just past midnight Dec. 4 and police lights were flashing on both sides of four-lane West Market Street’s 3300 block. Across from the Sonic Drive-In, 22-year-old A Pearson’s Toyota Scion lay in a ditch, recently rammed by a fleeing car after a 22-mile, high-speed police pursuit two experts say should never have occurred.
Across the divided highway, Christian Morrow was exiting a now-wrecked Volvo S70 sedan as Tusculum Police Chief Danny Greene approached him and ordered him to the ground. Greene and Tusculum Police Department (TPD) Officer Jason Weems had chased Morrow, who suffered non life-threatening injuries in the crash, through four jurisdictions.
The initial reason? Morrow sped by Officer Weems at 104 miles per hour. The only thing dispatchers from other jurisdictions were told was that TPD was pursuing based on the speeding and a subsequent evading arrest. While the pursuit appears not to have violated Tusculum’s pursuit policies, experts say it was ill-advised and that the best policies in use would not have allowed it.
Pearson, a Johnson City Public Library employee and recent honors graduate of East Tennessee State University, died in the crash.
“I’m not one who thinks police should not engage in pursuits, but I think they need to be restricted and my line in the sand is a violent crime,” University of South Carolina professor Geoff Alpert told News Channel 11. Alpert is one of the nation’s foremost experts on police pursuits and has contributed significantly to national literature on the subject.
“I think once we started collecting data on high-speed chases and saw the negative outcomes and saw the carnage and the destruction to families and to people and to things, we started realizing it’s just not worth capturing someone for a property crime,” Alpert said.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data show that between 1982 and 2019, 13,108 people died in crashes involving police pursuits. Of those, 136 were police officers and almost 9,000 were people in the fleeing vehicles.
But 3,981 of the dead were people just like A Pearson — drivers heading from point A to point B with no expectation the trip would end any differently than hundreds they’ve made before. That total equates to an innocent bystander dying from a police pursuit every two-and-a-half days, and Alpert and other experts say the numbers likely are underreported.
“Unfortunately for A, they were at the wrong place at the wrong time and unfortunately now you have an innocent victim that has died as a result of a pursuit,” Northeast State Community College criminal justice professor Eric Stanton told News Channel 11. Stanton reviewed reports of the chase and spoke with several area agencies in preparation for the interview.
“It’s a series of very unfortunate events,” he said. “And this is what happens when a pursuit goes bad.”
Morrow, then 21, was still fleeing and Weems and Greene were still pursuing in a chase that had reached speeds exceeding 110 miles per hour when Morrow approached Pearson’s and another car that were taking up both eastbound lanes ahead of him.
Morrow entered a short center turn lane to try and get around them but hit a median, lost control at high speed, crossed in front of one driver and hit Pearson’s car. Pearson’s Scion went into a ditch on the highway’s south side while Morrow’s car veered across the oncoming lanes and came to a stop behind a trophy shop near Sonic.
“My gut feeling, my instinct is (Pearson) would still be alive today had this pursuit not taken place,” Stanton said.
Pearson was returning home from doing laundry. The budding filmmaker never made it there or to a shift the next morning at the library.
News Channel 11 has gathered documents and 911 audio related to the chain of events that ended in Pearson’s death. We asked for dashcam footage and were told by an attorney for the city of Tusculum, Alex Chesnut, that “dash cam footage was unavailable due to the dash cam equipment being inoperable.”
News Channel 11 reviewed TPD’s high-speed pursuit policy and those of other departments; we’ve also spoken at length with Stanton and Alpert about an aspect of policing that both say while necessary, is risky and can easily be overused.
TPD’s policy and the ‘gold standard’
“Departments around here for the most part that have adopted the ‘gold standard’ pursuit policies would not have pursued in that situation,” Stanton said. The primary element of that “gold standard” is spelled out identically in bold type in the pursuit policies of the Johnson City, Jonesborough and Elizabethton police departments: “Only situations or incidents involving violent felony acts will allow an officer to be involved in a pursuit.”
TPD’s policy includes no such specific language. In fact, it authorizes officers to continue pursuit over a greater distance not just when a serious felony is involved but also if the suspect’s vehicle “is operating in any such manner that the public safety is seriously endangered.”
Stanton pointed out several times that regardless of whether TPD’s policy should be amended, his review seems to clearly show Greene and Weems did not appear to violate it as it is written.
But Alpert said clearly restrictive policies that prohibit pursuit except when a violent felony has been committed eliminate the need for the kind of on-the-fly decision-making that occurred that night.
“If you have a very vague policy that says ‘balance the need to apprehend and the risk created by the chase,’ you’re putting yourself in a no-win situation,” Alpert said.
Tusculum’s policy includes six factors that must color an officer’s decision whether to initiate pursuit and whether to continue it. It demands that a pursuing officer “constantly weigh the necessity of the pursuit considering such factors as safety of the public, conditions of the road and so on.”
If at any time a pursuing officer “feels the pursuit is a greater threat to the public safety than the offender being pursued, he will terminate the pursuit…” the policy adds.
Alpert likened the speed at which pursuit events occur to a quarterback reading receiver routes and scanning defenses — but with much more on the line.
“Based on what I see (in the TPD policy) you’re asking a police officer to do that and instead of an interception or even a pick-six, you’re talking about lives,” Alpert said. “So putting an officer in that situation is horrible.”
The Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) is investigating the crash and says charges against Morrow, now 22, are pending. Morrow is in the Greene County Detention Center on a probation violation and three charges from that night — driving on suspended license second offense, felony evading arrest and reckless endangerment.
No charges have yet been filed related to the wreck, but the Washington County grand jury is set to meet in mid-March. Since the crash occurred in Johnson City, a presentment or indictment charging Morrow with a manslaughter or homicide charge could come out of that session.
Picking up the chase
Chief Danny Greene wrote the initial police report on the incident Dec. 4. and Officer Weems added a supplemental report dated Dec. 13, 2021. Greene wrote that at about 11:39 p.m. Dec. 3 Weems clocked a vehicle going 104 miles per hour in front of Greene Valley, which is the small town’s city limit on its east end.
Greene, apparently on duty himself, “started toward Officer Weems,” according to his report. Weems pursued Morrow’s car at between 90 and 100 miles per hour and as the chase neared the Washington County line, “I asked 911 to notify Jonesborough and Washington County that we were entering their jurisdiction.” The pursuit had continued for about seven miles when the vehicles passed into Washington County.
Weems’s report notes that at one point in rural Washington County, “The Chief asked my speed … and I was around 114 mph and the vehicle was still pulling away from me.”
911 recordings obtained by News Channel 11 reveal conversations between a Greene County dispatcher and one from Washington County after the chase passed into Washington County. A Washington County dispatcher asked for a tag or vehicle description.
A few minutes later the same Greene County dispatcher was on the line with a different Washington County dispatcher saying Morrow had left the four-lane highway onto two-lane Persimmon Ridge Road and then turned left onto the narrow two-lane Main Street in Jonesborough.
At this point, a female voice in the background at Washington County can be heard asking “what are the charges?” — which the dispatcher then repeats.
“I have no idea,” the Greene County dispatcher answers before asking people in her communications center, “What are his charges, did he say?”
GREENE CO: “I don’t know what the charges are to be honest with you. They clocked him at 102, 104 and was trying to get him to stop and he ran all the way up there from Tusculum.”
WASHINGTON CO: “Ok so he’s evading at this point?”
GREENE: “I’m sorry?”
WASHINGTON CO: “Is it at least evading charges?”
GREENE CO: “Oh, I would say. Yeah.”
WASHINGTON CO: “OK.”
WASHINGTON TO SOMEONE IN THE ROOM OR ON THE RADIO: “She doesn’t know any other charges.”
Why all the questions about charges?
The Washington County dispatcher wasn’t the only jurisdiction wondering on what charges TPD was pursuing. As a different Washington County dispatcher communicated with road officers a few minutes later, those officers also had questions.
By this time, Morrow had been off the four-lane divided highway for a few minutes and sped through downtown Jonesborough’s narrow Main Street before climbing a hill heading east toward Johnson City.
“They’ve terminated?” a WCSO officer identified as “321” asks a dispatcher.
The dispatcher announced the chase was on Headtown Road, which connects the old highway back to the four-lane 11-E near Jonesborough’s Lowe’s store. Another WCSO officer’s voice came over the radio.
WCSO Officer: “120 are they still pursuing?”
DISPATCH: : “Ten four.”
Same officer: “Do we know what their charges are?”
DISPATCH: “Evading right now is what they have on it.”
The Johnson City Police Department communications center was also on the radio at this point. A dispatcher described the car heading back toward 11-E on Headtown Road and adds this: “Their charges’ll be at least evading at this time — unknown on further.”
Stanton said those kinds of questions are asked “immediately” when pursuits are headed toward additional jurisdictions to start determining how, if at all, to provide assistance.
“Based on those departments’ policy and procedures, they would not have allowed their officers to engage in this pursuit, based on at this point they have traffic offenses … and it’s not a violent felony,” Stanton said.
“That does not mean they couldn’t go ahead [and] possibly clear the road, make sure innocent civilians like A were off the road, maybe block some intersections but not actively engage in pursuing the vehicle.”
But, pursuits occur very quickly. If Johnson City was going to try and block any intersections or clear roads, they didn’t have time.
Alpert said the split-second nature and the tragic outcomes that can so often occur have prompted what he called “a great reduction in pursuits” over the last few years.
“The last figures I’ve seen from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that restrictive policies for the first time have outreached these judgmental policies,” he said. “The more advanced departments are restricting these pursuits more and more. There are two things driving it. One, it’s the right thing to do and the other is the cost because some of these lawsuits can be in the tens of millions of dollars.”
‘The fateful final 2 miles’
At some point after the pursuit reached two-lane roads, the officers lost sight of Morrow.
“Due to our speeds slowing, we lost sight of the suspect vehicle and upon approaching Headtown Road saw no lights on East Main Street so we turned on Headtown…” Greene wrote. He said at the traffic light where Headtown reaches 11-E, he didn’t see any car lights straight ahead or to the left (toward Jonesborough).
“At the light I saw, to my right, tail lights on 11-E … already entering the city limits of Johnson City.”
Greene reported that he turned right and became the lead vehicle. He was running about a quarter-mile behind Morrow’s car. About two miles past that turn Greene and Weems witnessed the crash. Greene stopped at Morrow’s car while Weems stopped near the ditch where Pearson’s car was.
Morrow was trying to exit his car. Greene reported he handcuffed him before removing the cuffs “due to the blood loss” from a head wound. EMS treated Morrow and took him to Johnson City Medical Center.
There would be no emergency procedures for Pearson. Officer Weems’s report, added to files Dec. 13, says after the crash, he parked on the roadside and ran to Pearson’s car in the ditch where he tried to open the door. When that proved unsuccessful, Weems “began to beat on the window to get the driver to talk to me.”
Two Johnson City police officers then arrived and were also trying to get a response.
One of those officers can be heard telling a Johnson City dispatcher “we ain’t got no response.”
“From the driver?” the dispatcher asks.
“10-4, send medical,” the officer says.
Seconds later, the dispatcher asks, “which patient is not responding?” A second officer responds that Tusculum has the suspect in custody and adds, “unconscious vehicle’ll be in the ditch opposite the Trophy Shop.”
Shortly after, the second officer tells the dispatcher to “advise THP that this is going to be a Foxtrot,” referring to the military phonetic term for the letter “F” — in this case, a fatality.
“Ten-four,” the Johnson City dispatcher replied, more quietly than she had previously.
What comes next?
Jason Weems, who has worked for Tusculum Police Department (TPD) since January 2020, went through a crisis debriefing Dec. 4 with James Kilgore, a board-certified crisis response chaplain. Chief Danny Greene did as well, and both worked their subsequent shifts as scheduled, according to Greene. Greene said in an email no disciplinary action is anticipated in Weems’s case.
TPD has refused further requests for interviews after Greene initially spoke by phone and through email with News Channel 11, including a request for information that could shed light on other information Greene or Weems may have had about Christian Morrow that night.
A supplemental report by Greene dated Jan. 14 says that Greene called 911 about 12:40 a.m. Dec. 4 — less than an hour after the crash — “and was told by a dispatcher that Samantha Morrow (Christian Morrow’s mother) had called and wanted to speak to an officer about her son possibly running from the police.”
Greene’s report said he tried to contact Samantha Morrow Dec. 4 and reached her Dec. 5, “and she related what she had told 911.” The alleged conversation included Ms. Morrow’s suspicion her son had been smoking methamphetamine and that she thought he was “manic and schizophrenic.”
Samantha Morrow, the report says, “called to warn someone that he might be attempting suicide (sic) and was driving a car with no tags and had ran from the police before.”
News Channel 11 has requested dispatch records from Greene County and dash cam video from TPD, along with requesting an interview with Greene, city attorney Alex Chesnutt or Tusculum Mayor Alan Corley regarding any potential review of policies or the incident itself.
A Jan. 13 letter from Chesnutt said “dash cam footage was unavailable due to the dash cam equipment being inoperable.” Requests for 911 audio and interviews have been denied, with Chesnutt citing “ongoing investigations and pending criminal charges.”
One thing News Channel 11 has learned is that this wasn’t Christian Morrow’s first time fleeing from law enforcement.
A December 2020 report from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office details a daytime chase along Blue Springs Parkway. Officer Eric Rollyson’s Dec. 15 report says he attempted a traffic stop, but Morrow evaded at high speed, ran several stop signs and crossed over the center line.”
At approximately the 900 block of Blue Springs Parkway, deputies terminated the pursuit,” Rollyson reported. They later arrested Morrow at his mother’s home.
Would Morrow have crashed his car if TPD hadn’t continued its pursuit? That’s an unanswerable question, but 25-year-old research from Alpert conducted for the federal Department of Justice found that more than 70% of 146 pursued suspects interviewed in jails said they would have slowed down when they “felt safe.” The average distance of separation from police in these interviews was a few blocks on streets and 2.3 miles on highways.
“The best thing you can do is get this person to slow down, not speed up,” Alpert said. “And what happens normally, if these people don’t stop, they speed up.”
Stanton said while additional charges resulted from the pursuit, and more yet could come, “we have to go back and look at why were they initially pursuing, and it’s for speeding – reckless driving.
“That’s not a good thing to do. However is it worth continuing to pursue an individual at a high rate of speed?”
For Pearson’s close friend and former roommate Shelby Tyler, the answer is a clear ‘no.’
“That chase was long,” Tyler said. “There was no reason for it to have gone on that long that late at night. There’s absolutely no reason that any of it had to happen, not at all.”
A Pearson’s parents said they aren’t yet ready to talk about Pearson’s life, but released a statement to News Channel 11 that references a memorial fund the ETSU College of Arts and Sciences has set up in A’s honor.
“Those funds are going to support underrepresented students in the study of media and communications, especially those interested in film. Contributions to the A. Pearson Fund can be made by mail at ETSU Foundation, PO Box 70721, Johnson City, TN 37614. They can also be made online at http://etsu.edu/give/; select College of Arts and Sciences and note A. Pearson Fund.”