A family and community in St. Louis County, Missouri have been plunged into turmoil after their daughter, 12-year-old Akeelah Jackson, was hit and seriously injured by a police cruiser involved in a pursuit on the evening of Oct. 14.
The 12-year-old was crossing Halls Ferry Road after visiting a supermarket when the tragedy occurred. While the speed limit on that section is 30 mph, St. Louis County police say that the police vehicle had reached a maximum speed of 59 mph during the chase, and that the cruiser was travelling without its siren or flashing lights switched on.
Police are investigating whether the officer involved was following correct procedure when Akeelah Jackson was struck at around 5:45 p.m. as she crossed the street from the Family Dollar supermarket.
Akeelah Jackson’s family say doctors have told them she may not survive her injuries, which include broken bones, head trauma, and severe internal bleeding. Her father described Akeelah Jackson as “an angel,” and asked for prayers to aid her recovery.
“We need all the prayers we can get right now — her life right now is in God’s hands,” said Willie Jackson in an interview with Fox 2 News. “She’s fighting, she’s a fighter. All the prayers we can get, we’ll accept them.” When asked if he wanted to comment on the actions of the police officer involved, Jackson said: “Right now, I need prayers for my daughter. That’s it.”
The street on which Akeelah Jackson was injured is a busy thoroughfare with four lanes of traffic and a central two-way left-turn lane. This meant that the 12-year-old had to navigate her way across 5 lanes of traffic to get to the other side. Sattelite images confirm the concerns of locals, who say that there are no crosswalks in the vicinity of the supermarket.
Police records show that the pursuit lasted a mere 32 seconds and occurred over a quarter of a mile, with the police cruiser reaching a top speed of 59 mph in a 30-mph zone. The pedestrian involved was said to have run across the road in front of the police vehicle.
According to reports, the police officer had observed a suspicious vehicle in the vicinity, and that vehicle suddenly sped off. The police officer made the decision to pursue the vehicle.
St. Louis County Police Sgt. Benjamin Granda said, “There is a reasonable time and distance for an officer to be able to try to conduct a traffic stop, when they’re trying to catch up with someone. Otherwise you would almost never have traffic stops to begin with.” Granda confirmed that “A police pursuit is one of the most dangerous things that we could possibly be involved in.” He said that an investigation initiated by the Bureau of Professional Standards would determine whether the officer had followed correct procedure in pursuing a vehicle without his lights and siren on.
While St. Louis County Police are introducing dashcam technology across their fleet of vehicles, it was unclear whether the cruiser in question had been equipped with such a system, or whether it had been turned on at the time of the accident.
In a Departmental Special Order (pdf) on “In-Car and Body-Worn Cameras” from the Office of the Chief of Police dated June 21, 2019, St. Louis County Police officers are provided with guidelines on the use of such equipment. The Order states that “If feasible, employees shall make every effort to activate the recording device to record an unexpected or noteworthy event that an employee witnesses (e.g., employee involved traffic accident, moving traffic violation, etc.).”
Furthermore, “It is the responsibility of the employee to ensure any recording devices are activated, operating, and positioned to record events as specified in this directive,” and that “Failure to initiate recording(s) and/or to abide by any other section of this policy may lead to disciplinary referral…”
The report states that “Employees shall activate the recording devices in the performance of, to include reasonable anticipation of, all enforcement actions,” including traffic stops. “Employees shall activate the ICC when following a vehicle they intend to stop.”
However, police policy does seem to place restrictions on what constitutes a pursuit, and when an officer should switch on their lights and siren. In a General Order on “Emergency Vehicle Operations and Pursuits” (pdf) from Aug. 15, 2018, a pursuit is defined as “A pursuit occurs when there is an active attempt by a law enforcement officer operating a motor vehicle and utilizing emergency warning lights and siren to apprehend one or more occupants of another moving vehicle…”
The Order states that emergency lights and sirens should only be activated when necessary to, for example, “Stop a vehicle, based on reasonable suspicion that the driver or passenger of the vehicle has committed a crime, to conduct further investigation.”
In deciding whether to engage in a pursuit or not, an officer should take into account all factors such as the seriousness of the offense, the speed of the pursuit, the officer’s familiarity with the area and “the presence of pedestrians and other traffic.”
In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio from April, 2019, Sgt. Granda outlined that current police policy regarding the pursuit of suspects tends to err on the side of public safety. However, officers normally have only a few seconds to make the decision to pursue the suspect or not.
“Our pursuit policy places a lot of a fluidity on different options for the officer to control,” said Granda. “If I believe through investigative techniques that I can identify that driver, that fleeing driver, and that he or she can be apprehended and held accountable at a later time, I think that our policy and most reasonable people would say that it’s much safer to let that person go and we’ll get them later on when we can control the situation.”
Branda stated that according to current pursuit policy, pursuits should be carried out only if there is the suspicion that a “dangerous felony” has been committed. These include, said Granda, “Murder, rape, sodomy, kidnapping, robbery—these very egregious crimes that these people need to be arrested for. So, that risk of that pursuit, to take that dangerous offender into custody as quickly as possible, that is where the scale is tipped between safety and the risk of that person fleeing. We’ve got to get that person in custody.”
“We’re not going to chase somebody for a fraud, or … stealing,” he said.
Returning to the issue of safety for the suspect, the pursuing officer and the general public, Granda said: “If somebody’s doing a hundred miles an hour down Halls Ferry, that’s probably not something to my benefit—especially if it’s in the middle of the day—to participate any further in.”