LOCAL

Pursuit protocols face scrutiny after fatal crash, Sheriff Brett Stassi says

Staff Report

The high-speed crash that took the lives of two Brusly High School students on New Year’s Eve will likely lead law enforcement agencies to reexamine their pursuit protocol, according to Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi.

Stassi said he had talked to three deputies before he spoke with POST/SOUTH for the interview.

“They had the policy on their desk, and right now, they’re looking at it,” he said.

The focus on protocol follows the incident in which Addis Police Officer David Cauthron drove down La. 1 into Brusly – outside his jurisdiction – in pursuit suspect Tyquel Zanders, who was driving a vehicle that was allegedly stolen in Baton Rouge.

Cauthron was in pursuit when he ran a red light at a very high rate of speed and crashed into the vehicle of the three teens. Maggie Dunn, 17, an 11th grader; and Caroline Gill, 16, a 10th grader, were both cheerleaders at Brusly High School. They died in the collision. Maggie’s brother, Liam Dunn, a student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, was still in critical condition on Jan. 9.

The issue has been focal point of discussion for the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, but the Louisiana Legislature may take up the matter in its session when it convenes in April.

It could be a good move, Stassi said.

Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi

“Maybe we need to bring together our policies and make the uniform across the board to stress how serious this is,” he said. “We’re trying to save innocent lives – not take them.”

Not every parish has a pursuit protocol on the books, Stassi said.

“You have all kind of avenues to get them, but nothing can change what happened here,” he said.

The accident has drawn national attention and the effect could extend far beyond Louisiana, Stassi said.

“This affects every law enforcement agency across the country… what we do and how we do it means something,” he said. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The pursuit began in Baton Rouge, where Zanders is accused of stealing his father's vehicle. Zanders crossed the Mississippi River Bridge, where West Baton Rouge law enforcement began the chase. He continued fleeing, going back over the bridge and eventually was arrested when his car stalled. He was charged in West Baton Rouge with two counts of manslaughter.

“My office will conduct a thorough investigation of the case, including analyzing all police unit dash camera and officer camera footage, communication with the officer, and interviews with witnesses; and will present the case to a grand jury,” said 18th Judicial District Attorney Tony

Clayton.

“We will follow the facts of the case, but I cannot understand why the officer was driving at such a high rate of speed through a red light,” Clayton said. “Sirens and police vehicles do not give an officer the authority to cut through a red light. They must slow down or come to a complete stop when human life is in danger.

“In this case, evidence appears to show that the officer was grossly negligent, and the lives of these young people would not have been taken had he exercised common sense,” he said. “If it involves putting human life in danger, stop the damn pursuit. It's just not worth the risk. This is a tragic case that has impacted many families and an entire community and ended the lives of young people with a promising future ahead of them. It’s very sad.”

The pursuit protocol has different aspects, Stassi said.

“The law says you can go through a red light or a stop sign, but once you deem it safe to proceed through it,” Stassi said. “Now, if someone was coming down the Belleview and the Acadian Festival parade was going down the road, for example, the pursuit is over.

“But if you kidnapped a 4-year-old kid, for example, and you were trying to safe innocent life, that’s a different level,” he said. “Each case is different, but in a minor case, the pursuit is discontinued.”

The road spikes are the least damaging way to stop alleged criminals during a pursuit, although roadblocks can also come into play.

“We don’t want to risk the deputy’s life, a civilian’s life or destroying a unit,” Stassi said. “Even if we crash into the criminal, we can get sued.

“It all comes down to loss of innocent life, and it determines the extent we will go to save that person,” he said. “But even in that situation, you have to stop at the red light.”

“You have all kind of avenues to get them, but nothing can change what happened here,” Stassi said.

Stassi believes all pursuits from this day forward will be affected by the accident in West Baton Rouge Parish.

“The actual training of law enforcement will be changed to make sure that lights and sirens don’t give them carte blanche to do what they want,” he said.