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, A Pearson.
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Tennessee’s 292 police pursuit crashes in 2021 — especially the 22 that ended in fatalities — are far more than just statistics on a spreadsheet.
Like the one in Johnson City on Dec. 4 that claimed the life of recent college graduate A Pearson, those crashes can spread their webs far, weaving tragic strands through the lives of real families left to grieve and question.
It happened hundreds of miles away, months before and at a very different hour of the day — but in several tragic respects Larry and Patricia Franklin’s lives in Waverly, Tenn. ended similarly to how Pearson’s ended in Johnson City.
Like Pearson, who died just after midnight, the 67-year-old married couple were driving, obeying traffic laws when a man being pursued by police hit their car at high rate of speed just before 2 p.m. Like Pearson, the Franklins died in the Feb. 10, 2021 crash on the Cumberland Plateau.
The Franklins and Pearson were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time as police engaged in extended chases of men who were not suspected of having committed a violent felony.
Pearson left behind loving parents, a sister, a niece and countless friends. The Franklins left behind two grown children and seven grandchildren.
According to police reports, Christian Morrow, the man Tusculum Police had pursued into Johnson City when he crashed into Pearson’s car, failed to stop after passing an officer at 104 miles per hour. Tory McConahie hit the Franklins in a stolen truck after a 20-plus mile chase that started when that truck’s owner saw his truck being driven and began a pursuit himself. Officers took over, chasing McConahie into an adjoining county over a vehicle theft.
Since no violent felonies were involved prior to both crashes, the pursuits would have violated the restrictive pursuit policies governing some area departments. Two experts News Channel 11 interviewed say such “gold standard” policies are a key to reducing pursuit fatalities that have averaged nearly one a day nationwide since the early 1980s.
“What I would highly recommend as they go forward … is that they relook at their policy and adjust as needed,” Northeast State Community College criminal justice professor Eric Stanton said. “Because unfortunately an innocent victim has died in this situation and it’s just a tragic loss.”
Statistics compiled by News Channel 11 show pursuit-related crashes are extremely common — and deaths from those pursuits are far from uncommon. The 24 reported crashes with fatalities since Jan. 1, 2021 took the lives of 28 people:
- 15 fleeing suspects
- 5 passengers in fleeing suspects’ vehicles
- 8 people with no connection whatsoever to the pursuit
Three of the eight who were in the wrong place at the wrong time died together in a crash the morning of Jan. 26, 2021. 24-year-old Amanda Chatman and her sons, 3 and 4 years old, were on their way to Head Start when a chase that began in Monterey ended in Cookeville. Chatman also had a 2-year-old daughter.
Tara Reese, a 58-year-old wife and mother who worked at a water products business, was hit head on a little before 1 a.m. Oct. 26, 2021 in Chattanooga by a driver fleeing after Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) officers clocked him going 90 miles per hour in a 55 zone.
Marvin Honey, 59, died Oct. 21, 2021, hours after being hit by a fleeing driver in Memphis who police said had rammed a Bartlett, Tenn. cruiser, leading to a late afternoon chase.
In addition to accident data, News Channel 11 gathered pursuit policies from multiple law enforcement agencies and interviewed experts. The statistics and the personal tragedies that often lie behind them have kept governments, academics and law enforcement debating the issue of pursuits for years.
“I think we’ve seen over the last few years a great reduction in pursuits, but they’re very dangerous — they end up quite often in injuries and deaths and certainly collisions so we have to be very judicious,” University of South Carolina criminal justice professor Geoffrey Alpert said.
A nationally recognized expert in police pursuit issues and policies, Alpert said for him and a growing number of law enforcement departments, “judicious” is synonymous with greatly limiting the decisions officers have to make when people disobey orders to stop.
He and Stanton both describe a clear “gold standard” for policies to most effectively reduce — not eliminate — pursuits and the tragic consequences that can come with them. It is embodied in several Northeast Tennessee policies, though not the majority — including Elizabethton’s, Johnson City’s and Jonesborough’s where it is summed up succinctly and in bold: “Only situations or incidents involving violent felony acts will allow an officer to be involved in a pursuit.”
Alpert called such restrictive policies “far better for everyone.”
“The chief is the one who makes the decision, not the cop in the heat of the chase,” he said.
A semi-restrictive policy example leaves many factors to consider
When that initial yes or no decision isn’t in a policy, a host of other factors come into play. The Greeneville Police Department’s (GPD) policy offers a good example.
Like several other area departments’, GPD’s is semi-restrictive, listing three instances that if an officer “reasonably believes” to be true, the officer can pursue a vehicle that doesn’t stop at their direction. In addition to serious violent felony, another is if a driver is thought to be under the influence and driving in a way that creates “a serious risk to the public” if allowed to continue.
The third cause is a belief that “the suspect, if allowed to flee, would present an imminent danger to human life or cause serious injury.”
As an officer decides whether initiating or continuing a pursuit is reasonable, GPD lists 18 factors that “shall be considered.” Many have to do with time/place/conditions — speed involved, geographic location, weather, presence of other traffic or pedestrians and visibility, among others.
But leading those factors, and essentially repeated in a later “evaluating the circumstances” section, is this (from evaluating circumstances):
“(O)fficers and authorizing supervisors shall continually weigh the risk of injury to innocent third parties against the interest of the immediate apprehension of the suspect…”
With a long list of factors and adrenaline running high, Alpert says police officers are put in very difficult situations. When department policymakers allow for more discretion and expect officers to continually evaluate a long checklist, he said, “You’re asking them to make these series of decisions like a good quarterback would do reading routes and looking at defenses and trying to figure out in his head, ‘what do I do based on what I see you asking?'”
Even non “gold standard” policies contain repeated language about when to terminate pursuits and the importance of being willing to do so at any time. Tusculum’s policy includes a boilerplate reference to that effect found in numerous area policies:
“The decision to pursue is NOT IRREVOCABLE, and it is the intelligent officer who knows when to discontinue to the pursuit. The experience and common sense of each officer coupled with his concern for the safety of the public and himself should guide him in his decision.”
A line in Greeneville’s policy references a common factor in many pursuits — one Alpert’s research has shown would as often as not prompt officers to terminate pursuits when a violent felony hasn’t occurred:
“A pursuit should generally be terminated when the subject’s actions appear to be motivated merely by a desire to evade apprehension absent some further facts justifying continuation of the pursuit.”
A study Alpert contributed to in 1997 included interviews with 146 jailed pursuit suspects. A strong majority said they would slow down if they “felt safe” in their distance from police — just over two blocks on city streets, a couple miles in highways.
In cases when a suspect isn’t suspected of having committed a violent felony, Alpert said, “the best thing you can get this person to do is slow down, not speed up. And what happens normally if these people don’t stop? They speed up.”
What results, he said, “is a much riskier situation than the one they dealt with in the beginning, so no, it’s not worth chasing that person, certainly not through crowded areas.”
In Tennessee, 5 pursuit crashes a week
Someone died in a pursuit-related crash every two weeks in Tennessee last year. But 26 deaths may actually seem like a low number given the fact that according to THP, the state experienced 292 crashes involving pursuits in 2021.
The 292 crashes and 22 involving fatalities both were the highest totals of the last four years, according to data News Channel 11 requested. Pursuit crashes didn’t vary that much. The total number reported averaged at 256 — just under five a week — with a low of 227 in 2018, followed by 272 in 2019 and 233 in 2020.
Only 5% of those 1,024 crashes involved at least one death, but that still added up to a total of 51, with two more already coming in the first six weeks of 2022. Whether it was just bad luck or some other factor, though, 7.5% of 2021’s pursuit-related crashes involved a fatality compared to only 4% over the three previous years.
Northeast State’s Stanton said that underscores the risk posed by pursuits.
“A vehicle’s a weapon. It’s a loaded weapon,” Stanton said while describing the pursuit by a Tusculum Police Department (TPD) officer, joined by the TPD chief, that ended in Pearson’s death in Johnson City.
“So now you’ve got the person being pursued driving down the road and two vehicles pursuing that individual. So, now we have three loaded weapons driving down the road at a high rate of speed.”
Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show 13,108 deaths nationwide in the 38 years ending in 2019 — nearly one a day — and Alpert said experts believe numbers are underreported.
“I’ll just say this one statistic, Alpert said. “By the end of today, at least one more person is going to die as a result of a pursuit.”
The NHTSA statistics show 30% of the deaths, nearly 4,000, involved people like Pearson and the Franklins — bystanders not originally involved in the pursuit. THP’s 2021 reports show an almost identical 31% with 8 of 26 deaths involving bystanders.
What are policies like in Northeast Tennessee?
News Channel 11 asked more than a dozen Northeast Tennessee departments for their pursuit policies, as well as THP.
Most run to multiple pages and include lengthy sections about evaluating circumstances, weather, vehicle operation and a host of other factors. Even the three policies Stanton and Alpert say meet the gold standard leave officers with many decisions to make once a pursuit has been initiated.
Johnson City’s decision tree actually begins not with the violent felony question but with this one: “Are there safer alternative means of apprehending the suspect other than pursuit?
That suggests that even if there’s probably cause to believe a violent felony has occurred or will, officers are supposed to consider other methods for apprehending a suspect.
Some other policies could be classed as “semi-restrictive” though they don’t expressly prohibit a chase that doesn’t involve a violent felony. Kingsport’s adds a second authorization standard that’s still restrictive: An officer sees a vehicle “being operated in a reckless or negligent manner, prior to any attempts to conduct a traffic stop, which places citizens in imminent danger of injury or death.” (emphasis added).
Kingsport Police Department’s restriction assumes the likelihood that suspects are much more prone to engage in reckless or negligent driving after a chase has begun.
The Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department’s policy is even less restrictive in the circumstances under which it allows pursuits to begin thanks to the clause surrounded by parentheses here:
“Pursuits may be initiated when an individual who is suspected of a felony (or any offense whose nature makes the suspect’s escape more dangerous to the community than the risks posed by the pursuit) exhibits intent to avoid arrest by using a vehicle to flee.”
A 2017 U.S. Department of Justice study found a slow increase in the percentage of officers employed at agencies with restrictive policies (more large agencies have such policies). That increased from 72% in 1997 to 78% in 2013.
The study also found that the more options officers had, the more pursuits per 100 officers were conducted.
“Agencies with a written policy that left the pursuit decision to an officer’s discretion had the highest vehicle pursuit rate (17 pursuits per 100 officers employed),” the study authored by statistician Brian Reaves noted. “Agencies that discouraged or prohibited pursuits had the lowest pursuit rate (2 per 100). Agencies with a restrictive policy conducted 8 pursuits per 100 officers employed.”
What recourse for impacted families?
As the statistics show, more pursuits invariably adds up to more accidents and deaths.
Like Pearson’s, the Franklins or Marvin Honey’s, the hundreds of “wrong place wrong time” lives cut short by pursuits can’t be restored. Suspects usually face vehicular homicide charges, which is the case with McConahie, who hit the Franklins, while such charges against Morrow await completion of a THP investigation and potential indictment when the Washington County grand jury convenes in mid-March.
Apart from consequences for suspects who harm others, Alpert said one of the first things a department should do in the wake of a crash is an administrative review “and handle the situation properly.”
“If they (Tusculum) think a 20-mile chase for speeding’s appropriate they’re not going to say the officer violated policy, and shame on them,” he said. Tusculum’s policy permits pursuit on a fairly broad basis, including if an officer believes “the vehicle being pursued is operating in any such manner that the public safety is seriously endangered.”
Criminal charges against officers are becoming more common, Alpert said. “The officers can violate speeds with lights and sirens, but they must drive with due regard for the safety of the public.”
The most common outcome as far as trying to hold police accountable is civil ligitation, Alpert said.
“There’ll be a police procedures lawsuit, there’ll be a failure to train depending on who the officer is, negligent hiring — all sorts of things that come into it, failure to supervise. There are all sorts of ways that a plaintiff’s lawyer will attack the officer and the department.”
Those include standard civil tort cases but also sometimes what are known as Section 1983 civil rights cases.
Alpert said plaintiffs are frequently successful.
“The more outrageous the chase, the more likely they’ll get a successful settlement or verdict and the higher the dollar amount.”
He said law enforcement agencies without strict policies run a greater risk of litigation from families than those that limit pursuits.
Some Tennessee policies directly reference “Haynes v Hamilton,” a 1994 case from Hamilton County in which the court found law enforcement officers can be held liable for injuries or deaths resulting from an accident between a vehicle being pursued by police and an innocent third party.
“We conclude that an officer’s decision to commence or continue a high-speed chase is encompassed within the statutory term “conduct” and may form the basis of liability in an action brought by a third party who is injured by the fleeing suspect, if the officer’s decision was unreasonable,” the court opined. “In determining whether the decision to initiate or continue pursuit is reasonable, the risk of injury to innocent third parties should be weighed against the interest in apprehending suspects.”
The Texas Municipal League was for years the primary insurer for municipal departments, and Alpert said when those departments faced issues over a chase the league asked three questions.
“The first one was, ‘what was the violent crime for which you were chasing?'”
In Tusculum’s case, the answer is none, but Alpert said additional factors can be considered when attorneys represent victims’ families — in the Tusculum case, speeds that exceeded 100 miles per hour.
“What is created is a much riskier situation than the one they dealt with in the beginning so no, it’s not worth chasing that person,” Alpert said. “Certainly not through crowded areas … Those kinds of speeds are putting people in danger and should determine that the pursuit be be terminated.”
What about the suspects?
THP’s 2021 reports revealed patterns.
As is the case nationally, most of the suspects were young men. The fleeing suspects in the 24 fatal crashes included 15 males between the ages of 20 and 29 — 12 were White, two Latinx and one Black. Another three were under 20, including Black males ages 19 and 15 and a 16-year-old White female. The remaining seven included two women in their 20s (both White), three men in their 30s (all White) and two men in their 40s (one Black, one White).
Racially, the demographics were close to Tennessee’s overall numbers, with 75% White suspects aligning closely with the state’s 78% White population. The four black suspects (16.7%) almost exactly matched the state’s 16.8% Black population. And Tennessee is 6.9% Hispanic or Latino, close to the 8.3% statewide.
Age and sex are different stories, with the average age being under 26 and 88% of suspects (21 of the 24) being male. The THP reports also showed that six of the 24 fleeing drivers tested positive for methamphetamines and drug use was suspected with tests pending in eight other cases.
Morrow had an extensive but generally non-violent criminal record. So did McConahie, the man who hit and killed the Franklins in a stolen truck, and Michael Shepherd, the 25-year-old who hit the car Amanda Chatman and her two sons were in when they were killed in Cookeville.
Are more changes the answer?
Law enforcement agencies and their individual officers face tremendous stress and challenges, Alpert and Stanton both say, and what to do when a person refuses to stop is by no means the least among them.
As the THP data show, a significant number of those who fled and ended up in fatal accidents were under the influence of meth or other intoxicants. If a pursuit is terminated, the suspect could still wind up hurting someone or taking a life.
But the two believe the more agencies that adopt and enforce restrictive policies, the less collateral damage there will be — without enough negative consequences to outweigh the lives saved.
“Most departments look at their policies and procedures as a living document,” Stanton said. “Something that constantly needs to be looked at, reevaluated and sometimes changed based on changing times, norms … to where you’re keeping up to make sure your department is doing the very best they can to protect the public.”
Alpert’s research shows that’s occurring, albeit slowly. He said recent U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics show that more restrictive policies outnumber what he called “judgmental” policies.
“The more advanced departments are restricting these pursuits more and more,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s regional, and it shouldn’t be size (of agency). 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.”
When departments don’t act, in some cases governments or the courts do.
Washington state legislators passed a 2021 criminal justice reform bill that greatly restricted any department’s ability to pursue. According to media reports, police now must witness a suspect leaving the scene of a crime or believe the suspect presents an immediate threat to public safety in order to have probable cause to pursue their vehicle. Numerous agencies and groups representing police have criticized the new law as a one-size-fits-all approach that will have negative unintended consequence.
Alpert said a much better solution involves departments tightening their own policies before legislatures or courts mandate changes.
“We don’t want judicial rulemaking,” he said. “We want police departments to deal with it themselves. But the more this goes on and on — we’ve seen it with taser use, we’ve seen it with a lot of other weapons, where the court are just basically saying ‘you’re not making the right decision, we’re going to make it for you.’ And that’s just the wrong way to run a police department.”
Training is another key element, Alpert said. Officers intuitively “want to catch the bad guy,” and good initial and ongoing training can help officers counteract the emotion and adrenaline that invariably accompany a pursuit he said contribute to officers “doing things they shouldn’t do.
“I think training can resolve most of them and I think that’s where there has to be policy, there has to be training, there has to be good supervision and accountability.”
Stanton said there’s precedent for some sort of state action. Tennessee passed the “Vanessa K. Free Act” in 1995, two years after Vanessa Free, a University of Tennessee-Chattanooga student from Kingsport, was killed when a police car ran a red light at high speed and hit the car she was riding in.
The officer wasn’t operating his emergency equipment, according to a lawsuit. The law requires anyone who drives an emergency vehicle in an official capacity to be adequately trained, including at least two hours annually of ongoing training.
“Hopefully in this situation, tragic loss of life, hopefully positive things can come about because of it,” Stanton said of the crash that caused Pearson’s death. “Maybe policies changed, maybe additional training, maybe even laws changed in this state … otherwise it’s a very negative and tragic situation.”