Teenagers’ deaths in Louisiana put a spotlight on police chases

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NEW ORLEANS (TBEN) — It was a tragically high price to pay for catching a suspected car thief: Two innocent teens have died and a police officer has been jailed, facing serious charges for a car accident that resulted from the pursuit.

Maggie Dunn, 17, and Caroline Gill, 16, who were cheerleaders for their high school in the southern Louisiana town of Brusly, died in the collision Saturday. They are the latest among hundreds of fatalities attributed to police pursuit accidents each year.

Many police forces have tightened their policy on such pursuits in recent years. However, National Highway Transportation Safety data shows that in 2020, 455 deaths were related to police pursuits.

The Louisiana case is unusual in that the local prosecutor says the officer, 42-year-old David Cauthron, acted so recklessly that he should be charged and is preparing to ask a grand jury to consider bringing them.

Authorities say Cauthron, an officer in the city of Addis, joined a car chase in rural West Baton Rouge Parish that began when police in Baton Rouge chased a man suspected of stealing his father’s car.

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Cauthron, authorities said, drove his police car through an intersection in Brusly, which is next to Addis, ignored a red light and collided with a car that detained the two girls and Dunn’s 20-year-old brother, Liam, who is seriously injured. was injured. .

“In my experience, I have never seen a police officer prosecuted criminally in a police case,” said Chicago civil rights attorney Andrew Stroth, who has handled numerous lawsuits in such cases but has no connection to the Louisiana collision.

Cauthron was jailed Thursday, according to online records. Neither the prison nor the parish clerk have found a lawyer for him.

Parish District Attorney Tony Clayton said in a press release this week that he plans to ask the grand jury to indict Cauthron. Possible charges include negligent homicide and negligent injury. Clayton stressed that the investigation will be thorough, but he made it clear that he believes the pursuit of suspect Tyquel Zanders, 24, was a deadly mistake.

“Sirens and police vehicles do not authorize an officer to cut through a red light,” Clayton wrote, adding that there is evidence to date that Cauthron was “grossly negligent.”

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Clayton did not limit his criticism to Cauthron. He previously publicly questioned whether police in Baton Rouge should have pursued Sanders, who was arrested unharmed after a chase involving multiple law enforcement agencies on both sides of the Mississippi River.

Baton Rouge news outlets, citing arrest details, say Zanders is accused of entering a relative’s home on Saturday and making off in his father’s car before leading police on a chase across the river and to Brusly, where the accident took place. Authorities say Zanders drove back across the river and was arrested in Baton Rouge, where he faces charges of auto theft, home burglary and aggravated flight.

The Baton Rouge Police Department has a pursuit policy that is posted on the city’s website that determines when officers may or may not give chase. A department spokesperson, Sgt. L’Jean McKneely, said the chase that led to the deaths of the two teens is being reviewed.

Addis police did not respond to a request for information about the policy.

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Deaths from police pursuits often receive less attention than controversies over police use of force, but criminal justice reformers are well aware of this. Pursuit policies in New Orleans were enacted after the city agreed to numerous reforms under a 2012 court settlement that followed numerous high-profile incidents of deadly violence.

Michael Downing, a former deputy police chief in Los Angeles, said his department has introduced tighter restrictions on pursuits due to deaths, injuries and lawsuits. Strong policies are needed to temper a police officer’s natural urge to pursue a suspect, he said.

Without policy, Downing said, “their instincts will be to get involved, get involved, get involved.”

Policies vary from department to department and the issues at stake are complex, including whether a suspect poses an immediate threat, he said.

Despite policies adopted across the country, deaths from pursuit remain a problem, Stroth said.

“Officers drive willfully, willfully and at high speed in densely populated communities where there is no real threat,” Stroth said. “And the results are tragic.”