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Louisiana legislative task force looking for reforms on high-speed pursuits

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(The Center Square) – Members of a legislative task force are mulling several potential reforms for high-speed police pursuits following the death of two teens in December.

The Task Force on Safety for Law Enforcement Officers Involved in High-Speed Chases on Friday heard from Jim Craft, executive director of the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, and Tim Morgan with Pursuit Alert, a technology to alert drivers of high-speed pursuits.

The task force was created through a Senate resolution approved in the 2023 legislative session in response to a New Year’s Eve crash that killed two teens and injured a third. Maggie Dunn, 17, and Caroline Gill, 15, cheerleaders at Brusly High School, died; Liam Dunn, Maggie’s brother, was injured.

The chase involved Baton Rouge and Addis Police officers’ pursuit of a stolen vehicle. Officer David Couthron crashed into the vehicle with the teens. Both Couthron, who worked for the police department in Addis, and the driver who initiated the chase, Tyquel Zanders, 24, were charged with crimes in the incident.

Couthron resigned in January and faces six charges at trial scheduled for March 18.

Craft discussed the benefits and drawbacks of various programs, technologies, policies and training to reduce accidents and injuries related to officer-involved high-speed vehicle pursuits in Louisiana.

“Police academies are required in this state to present a minimum of four hours of training on emergency driving,” he said, adding that annual in-service training of 20 hours per year can also include driving. “That should be a part of their in-service training.”

While agencies have discretion over 12 hours of in-service training, many are priced out of hands-on training on aggravated flight.

“That training is so expensive,” he said. “You beat up the tires, you beat up the cars.”

Craft suggests all law enforcement agencies should have restrictive pursuit policies, with limits on pursuits for certain circumstances and provisions for when they should be terminated.

While Craft said the policies “should be limited to the most serious of crimes,” he acknowledged that “what we’ve seen is the people being pursued have been more and more reckless.

“They can really put the public safety of a community at risk,” he said.

Spike strips, “arrest mats,” and devices to change traffic signals are also available but require funds and training to use effectively, Craft said.

Task force members noted that funding for law enforcement training is on the decline and noted that there currently is no required training for supervisors, who play a critical role in high-speed pursuits.

Task force Chair Sen. Caleb Kleinpeter, R-Port Allen, also pointed to the current penalty for aggravated flight that some argue is insufficient.

“Today the max is five years for aggravated flight, and I don’t think that’s enough,” he said. “It should match the penalties of why you are running.”

Morgan with Pursuit Alert explained how the company’s product, which is installed in police cruisers can alert drivers in the vicinity of high-speed chases to clear traffic and prevent collisions, technology that’s currently in place in numerous police departments in multiple states.

Parents of the teens killed in December testified to their frustrating experience in the aftermath. They stressed the need for more accountability and more training to avoid similar outcomes in the future.

“To me the biggest part is accountability, and that’s zero funding,” said Maggie’s mother, Erin Martin. “I just want to make sure no other mom gets a call like I got that day.”

The task force will review potential reforms and compile recommendations for lawmakers to consider in the 2024 legislative session.

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