Most Memphis Police Department chases end in accidents. Here’s why.
Many Memphis Police Department chases end in accidents, according to department data.
In 2020, there were 64 lawsuits and 39 accidents were related to these lawsuits. In 2021, the number of lawsuits increased to 134. Accidents related to these lawsuits also increased with 57.
“In a crowded city and you’re going over the speed limit. There’s no margin for error. So you think of someone coming out of the driveway and a guy pull off the road to get away from the policeman. Something is going to happen there. Something is going to be destroyed. Someone is going to be hurt,” MPD Deputy Chief Paul Wright said in an interview.
A notable accident following an MPD chase happened late last year near Shelby Farms Park when a person police described as a homicide suspect and a woman he was traveling with were both taken to hospital after the car they were traveling in overturned during the chase.
If the man involved in the Dec. 3 crash was in fact suspected of homicide, MPD policy says officers had at least one reason to begin the pursuit — MPD vehicle chases are prohibited unless the no one is suspected of having committed a violent crime. They are prohibited when someone has committed a crime or traffic violation.
The department released the lawsuit and crash data at a Memphis City Council hearing on Tuesday as part of a report on reckless driving and drag racing.
Reports of speeders that often weave through traffic across the city are now quarterly, as the city council, which regularly receives complaints about drag racing and speeding, pushes MPD to reduce the burning maneuvers of the rubber making the streets of Memphis more dangerous.
Members of the city council, such as Councilor Worth Morgan, have advocated for new vehicle chases when someone is drag racing to reduce chaos. During his interview with the board, Wright said department policy should stand.
“I think we should stick to best practices and policy. And our policy is based on best practices,” Wright said.
The trade call originally reported data that MPD provided to the city council on Tuesday. This presentation stated that there were 114 chase-related crashes in 2021. When the AC inquired about the data, MPD said it was incorrect and provided new data for the chase-related crashes in 2021, going from 114 to 57.
Local GOP officials push prosecution legislation
MPD releasing detailed police chase data comes as two Shelby County officials who would encourage more lawsuits with legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly.
State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and State Rep. John Gillespie, R-Bartlett and Memphis, introduce a bill that would raise the standard for police officers held liable for injury to third parties or property damage during a police chase.
The bill states that “law enforcement personnel and the law enforcement agency employing them are not liable for injury to any third party caused by a suspect fleeing pursuit, unless that the law enforcement personnel were grossly negligent, rather than negligent, and that the gross negligence was a proximate cause of the injuries sustained by the third party.”
Kelsey and Gillespie said the bill was aimed at helping Memphis catch criminals, citing the high crime rate.
“This legislation only protects law enforcement officers who follow proper policies and procedures while pursuing a fugitive suspect,” Gillespie said in a February statement. “It is important that officers and their departments are always held accountable for any injury to third parties caused by grossly negligent conduct.”
The MPD and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland did not respond to a request for information about the bill. He is scheduled for a Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 8. He has yet to have a hearing at Tennessee House.
Rise in arrests a sign of enforcement, MPD says
The MPD also provided the city council with detailed data on reckless driving arrests by neighborhood. Six of the nine precincts have seen an increase in arrests for reckless driving and drag racing in two consecutive calendar years. And all but two – Appling Farms and Crump Station – saw more arrests in 2021 than in 2020.
Wright said the increase in arrests for reckless driving and drag racing is due to the Department’s tightening of enforcement against reckless drivers and does not necessarily represent an increase or decrease in driving inciting police.
“It’s more about the enforcement actions that we take. That’s why you might actually see an increase in arrests being made throughout the year because we’re taking a more aggressive approach,” Wright said. “And then we bring in units like the SCORPION unit, which is a proactive unit. They come out and they help us with that.”
MPD unveiled the SCORPION unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, in November. WMC Action News 5 reported that the unit made 338 arrests, including 125 felony arrests, in its first three weeks.
Copper shows up
Most of the MPD command staff showed up for the city council meeting on Tuesday, a departure from the early days of MPD leader CJ Davis’ nine-month tenure.
Typically, when the MPD came to seek legislative authorization or to make a presentation, it was one or two officials. Most often it was Davis or Deputy Chief Don Crowe.
Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or followed on Twitter at @samhardiman.