Increase in high-speed chases: Local law enforcement officials weigh in

Looking south down U.S. Highway 31 in north Cullman (Nick Griffin for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Local and area law enforcement have been in an increasing number of  high-speed pursuits – and community members are asking why. Questions have intensified because there have been three chases in Cullman in the last few weeks, with a chase on May 24 (from Hartselle to downtown Cullman) leaving a 77-year-old woman dead and her granddaughter critically injured.

Local law enforcement officials expressed their opinions on what’s behind the increase.  

Cullman County Sheriff’s Office Communications Director Chad Whaley and Sheriff Matt Gentry said there are many contributing factors. 

“Unfortunately, vehicle pursuits have always been a part of law enforcement,” Whaley said. “It does seem as if vehicle pursuits are more prominent now than ever before. For Cullman, it is largely due to population growth. Cullman County has grown by approximately 30% over the last 25 years. With an increase of people, there will be an increase of crime; this includes vehicle pursuits.” 

Whaley also said that across the country, drug use and mental health issues continue to increase.

“These issues, coupled with a general lack of respect for authority most likely play a role in it as well,” Whaley said. “Lastly, vehicle pursuits are more prominent because of technology. In the past, pursuits might occur and the general public would be unaware. Now, primarily due to social media, every pursuit is documented, discussed and shared with everyone. Numbers have definitely gone up, but the coverage amplifies these pursuits and makes them even more prominent than the statistics might show.”

Gentry said new legislation has been passed that makes these pursuits a felonies. 

“It is our hope that these stiffer penalties may change the mindset of these individuals and help reduce the number of these pursuits,” Gentry said. 

Cullman Police Chief David Nassetta said he agrees with Whaley that people’s attitudes have changed and there is less respect for authority than there used to be. 

“I believe that society has been steadily downplaying the accountability and responsibility that the individual has, over the last 10-15 years,” Nassetta said. “When I started in 1996, we chased people because that was our job. It was expected of us to chase those who broke laws and put people’s safety in jeopardy. Our community is still, for the most part, supportive of this attitude. However, many communities are not. If you look at many of the larger cities around the nation, not only are police chases severely restricted, but many types of simple theft have also been decriminalized.” 

According to Nassetta, several cities in California have made shoplifting no longer a crime. 

“While homelessness is not a crime, many cities have also allowed the homeless to take over public areas to the extent that they are laying claim to areas that are both publicly and privately owned,” Nassetta said. “While this is not the prevailing mentality in our city, it certainly serves to desensitize people into a sense that people should be able to do anything that they want, and no law should be able to tell them otherwise.” 

Nassetta also wanted to talk about the last three chases that have happened in as many weeks in Cullman.

“The most recent, which resulted in the death of a completely uninvolved person, began in another jurisdiction,” Nassetta said. “The motivation of that driver is unknown.  To my knowledge, he had a current license and no outstanding warrants, but he is an out-of-state resident and I have no information about his history. Based on what I was told when he was taken into custody after the crash, he may have been under the influence of narcotics or was having a mental health issue. The chase that happened last week that began on Cherokee Avenue and ended with the suspect crashing near the Good Hope rest area on I-65 involved a driver who knew that he had outstanding warrants for attempted murder in Jefferson County. Going back to the chase where two of our patrol officers were recently injured, they were assisting with a pursuit with a driver that I am comfortable in classifying as a drug dealer, who attempted to throw out the drugs of the vehicle he was driving and was also in possession of a firearm.”

Nassetta said around two months ago, the Cullman Police Department began a traffic enforcement initiative to address the fact that Cullman County is No. 3 in the state in number of vehicle crashes.  

“We also constantly receive complaints from drivers and residents about people driving recklessly or speeding through neighborhoods,” Nassetta said. “During that time, we have increased the number of traffic contacts and written more citations and warnings. A byproduct of stopping more people is that we now encounter more people who decide to flee from a traffic stop. Again, we are attempting to address the bad drivers, and unfortunately, it results in some of those bad drivers not wanting to pull over. 

The bottom line, according to Nassetta, is that law enforcement can restrict when they chase vehicles, but he doesn’t feel that they need to outlaw all chases, as many in the community are calling for.

“If you make that happen, then you weaken the premise of holding people accountable for their actions,” Nassetta said. “Bad choices and actions need accountability.”

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