Well, it's happened again.
Law enforcement agencies that participated in a Feb. 21, 2001 police pursuit that terminated in Alcorn County—a pursuit that began in Alabama and ended in tragedy in Mississippi—have been named as defendants in a civil lawsuit stemming from the incident.
State lawmakers, who last month refused victims' pleas to address the police-pursuit issue and voted instead to "study" it, should add the growing list of lawsuits to their "study notes."
How many more incidents/deaths and civil lawsuits will it take to convince the Legislature that: 1) We have a problem; and 2) Reforms are absolutely essential?
Thirteen motorists, including two in Hattiesburg, perished in 2002 as a result of police pursuits. Since January 2000, 32 people have died in this manner on Mississippi's roads and highways.
The cost in human lives is appalling.
But there's another cost that is beginning to mount: Civil damages against law enforcement agencies deemed at fault by the courts in deaths caused by police pursuits.
In February, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling against the city of Jackson in a lawsuit stemming from the January 2000 death of Jamie Fowler-Boyll, a motorist who died in an accident caused by a police pursuit. The high court's decision affirmed an earlier ruling by Hinds County Circuit Court, which ordered the city to pay Fowler-Boyll's family $250,000 in damages.
Earlier this week, the families of three victims of a high-speed police pursuit in Alcorn County filed a $100 million lawsuit against law enforcement agencies that participated in the chase. Kathy Hollands, 36, Jennifer Parson, 18, and Brandy Hollands, 17, all of Savannah, Tenn., were killed in a collision with another vehicle - a vehicle whose occupants were being pursued by Mississippi and Alabama law enforcement agencies for allegedly attempting to steal thousands of CDs and DVDs from a Wal-Mart.
Torri Lavon Sanders, 24, of Whitehouse, Tenn., and Sherry Sue Johnson, 29, of Dover, Tenn., were subsequently convicted on three counts each of depraved heart murder. Now, the victims' families have turned their attention toward law enforcement, and are seeking to hold authorities accountable for their role in the tragedy.
According to The Associated Press, "The lawsuit states that law enforcement authorities should have let the shoplifters go and attempted to locate them after the danger of a high-speed collision had passed. The defendants, according to the suit, operated their vehicles in a negligent and reckless manner without regard for the safety of the public."
Clearly, the court will decide the merits of the victims' families claims.
However, as this real-life drama—and others like it - plays out in the legal system, there are three things to bear in mind: 1) Mississippi lacks a statewide, uniform police-pursuit policy. Consequently, police-pursuit policies vary from department to department. 2) The state lacks a comprehensive statute requiring all law enforcement agencies to train their officers in police pursuits. 3) Law enforcement agencies are hampered by an antiquated communications system that makes it difficult - and sometimes impossible - to determine why a police pursuit is taking place (especially if it began in a separate law enforcement jurisdiction).
Given these glaring inadequacies, motorists will continue to face unforeseen dangers on Mississippi's roads and highways—and Mississippi taxpayers may be forced to continue picking up the tab when police pursuits turn deadly.