GONZALES — The top law enforcement officer in Ascension Parish offered a scathing critique of the Gonzales Police Department’s handling of a high-speed pursuit on Tuesday that ended with two alleged shoplifters dying in a head-on collision in Iberville Parish.
Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said “enough is enough” to a department he said has seen at least five deaths as a result of fatal high-speed chases in the past six months alone.
“Most of this is not brain surgery; it’s not solving the fiscal cliff,” Wiley said on Wednesday. “There are models for high-speed pursuit policies that are everywhere.”
The latest fatal accident occurred around 11:15 a.m. Tuesday in St. Gabriel following a high-speed pursuit that originated at the Tanger Outlet Center in Gonzales.
Kevdrinka T. Williams, 25, of Baton Rouge, and Tremaine R. Wickem, 20, of New Orleans, both were killed after Williams lost control of her vehicle on La. 30 near La. 74 in St. Gabriel. Williams was trying to evade Gonzales police when she attempted to pass several vehicles along the westbound shoulder on La. 30, but she lost control of the vehicle, crossing the center line and colliding head-on with a truck, Louisiana State Police spokesman Jared Sandifer said.
The driver of the truck, Warren Porta III, 34, of Gonzales, and his passenger, Bradley Nolan, 48, of Geismar, both sustained moderate injuries in the crash.
Details about what led to the pursuit remained sketchy Wednesday, as Gonzales police officials remained mum on the subject. Department spokesman Sgt. Steven Nethken said Wednesday that an internal investigation was ongoing and department officials likely wouldn’t comment on the matter for awhile.
Police Chief Sherman Jackson said that he wouldn’t address specifics about the incident while the investigation was still under way.
“At heart, we don’t want to cause harm to anyone,” Jackson said. “That’s any police officer. We’re here to protect and serve. On the other hand, we try to use good, sound decision in a few seconds. It’s easy for a regular person to sit back and Monday-morning quarterback this thing, which I find is unfair. It is what it is. I understand it.”
The city’s attorney, Ryland Percy, released a copy of the department’s “Pursuit Driving Policy” following a public records request. Jackson said the policy will be reviewed to determine if it was followed during Tuesday’s pursuit.
That policy, in part, states that police officers will not handle many situations that require a greater sense of skill, judgment and common sense than police pursuits.
“The major objective of the department is the protection of life and property,” the six-page policy reads. “This procedure is written to eliminate injuries and deaths of police officers and citizens as a result of vehicular pursuits.”
Wiley, however, said that in recent months, the Police Department hasn’t used the best judgment in its pursuits. The majority of times, he said, high-speed chases are avoidable, and the Sheriff’s Office takes every precaution to prevent them.
“This is common sense,” Wiley said of his agency’s pursuit policy. “It didn’t take NASA to write this thing. It speaks to danger. It speaks to being able to identify the violators. It speaks to the quality or value of the violator measured against the safety of the violator and the general public.”
Although Gonzales police officials, citing the advice of the city attorney, have refused to give their side of the story, Wiley said he had a general knowledge of the events that led to the pursuit.
The sheriff said Williams and Wickem were stopped in the Tanger parking lot after allegedly shoplifting some clothes from one of the stores at the mall. While an officer ran background checks on the suspects, they fled the scene in Williams’ vehicle.
The identity of the suspects was known before the pursuit started, Wiley said, and the crime they allegedly committed was a misdemeanor. It wasn’t a rape, murder, robbery or even a burglary, he said.
“Their grand crime was they stole some clothes at Christmas,” Wiley said.
The Gonzales Police Department’s policy states that “officers involved in a pursuit must continually question whether the seriousness of the violation reasonably warrants continuation of the pursuit.”
Not only did the suspects die, but bystanders also were put in harm’s way because of the pursuit, the sheriff said.
“Thank God it wasn’t four fatalities,” Wiley said.
Jackson said he didn’t think Wiley was being fair in his criticism. One of the fatalities, he said, was a DWI suspect at 2 a.m. with minimal traffic. If Gonzales police officers did not pursue the suspect, Jackson said, they would have been putting other drivers at risk.
“When placed in that position, you always second-guess yourself, whether you end the pursuit or continue it,” Jackson said.
Wiley said he planned to meet with Jackson, whom he called a friend, to discuss the continued damage caused by high-speed chases in Ascension Parish. He called the Gonzales Police Department “a rich department” that didn’t have any excuses for the continued problems it’s facing.
“I just want my city to get better,” Wiley said. “I can’t imagine how many bodies we’ve had dead in high-speed pursuits in Louisiana in the past five years. Ten? And five have happened in the past six months here? That shocks everybody’s conscience.”