Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Jackson council member Kenneth Stokes’ advice might be bad, but the problem of deadly high-speed police car chases is very real.
Jackson, Mississippi, city council member Kenneth Stokes has issued an eyebrow-raising call for a rebellion against certain police. It has earned rebukes from the state governor, the city’s mayor, a gang of county sheriffs, and even Stokes’ own fellow council members. In an interview about police from neighboring counties ripping through Jackson while chasing crime suspects, Stokes told a local TV news reporter, “as these jurisdictions come into Jackson, we throw rocks and bricks and bottles at them. That’ll send a message we don’t want you in here.”
The point he was making was that police chases often cause a lot of damage, and sometimes injuries and death, especially at high speeds. One such chase happened on Christmas Eve in Stokes’ district, which he said led to complaints from residents worried about police zipping through from outside the city. Stokes said there was a history of these kinds of Dukes of Hazzard, county/city-line crossing police chases, and he wants the U.S. Department of Justice to come investigate the problem.
Now, as ill-advised as the suggestion is for people to kick rocks at police in pursuit (especially from a sitting elected official), the problem he points to is very real, and it’s something cities across the nation have to deal with. Property damage from police chases is one thing, but people get killed in these chases at almost the same rate as they are by police shootings. And we’re not talking killers getting chased down from a murder scene: Often there are innocent bystanders getting plowed down in police chases. Sometimes, the suspect chased is guilty of nothing more than petty retail theft or some other misdemeanor.
A recent USA Today investigation into police-involved car-chase deaths found that bystanders and car passengers accounted for almost half of all people killed during police chases from 1979 to 2013. Analyzing data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, USA Today figured that at least 11,506 people were killed over this time period, with many thousands more injured—all probably undercounted given the federal agency relies on voluntary police reports.
A report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that nine out of 10 reported police chases are over non-violent crimes. But add in the tensions that often exist between city and council law enforcement, as Stokes has, and the picture gets fuzzier.
While he angered almost every major elected official in Mississippi with his comments, Stokes has not backed down from them. His explanation is that he believes there is a pattern of biased policing practices from suburban police, who he believes discriminate on the bases of race and urban zip code.
“Race is a factor, and the blatant disregard for the public safety of innocent children and elderly citizens in unlawful chases by outside jurisdictions in the inner city of Jackson neighborhoods,” Stokes told the Clarion-Ledger. “Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Suppose [the] Jackson Police Department were chasing into [Jackson suburb] Ridgeland and putting those white children in danger? Do you think those white folks would say everything is fine?”
Jackson police chief Lee Vance has publicly rejected Stokes’ call to stone police cars, but he backs up Stokes’ point about police from other jurisdictions recklessly endangering Jackson residents. It’s a problem that caught the attention of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations last year.
“I also do not agree with the high-speed vehicle pursuits conducted by outside agencies into the City of Jackson,” Vance told the Clarion-Ledger. “It is my belief that any high-speed chase has the potential to destroy property and place the lives and safety of innocent citizens at an unnecessary risk during attempts to capture misdemeanor suspects."
Sheriffs from some of the counties Stokes and Vance have pointed to have not taken these charges lightly. Stokes may have been careless with his advice in how residents should deal with these police chases, but the sheriffs’ responses in some ways prove his point. Stokes called out three sheriffs in particular, but got this reply from Madison County Sheriff Randy Tucker: “He wants to say that there’s three [problematic] sheriffs and that’s all? Mr. Stokes, I’ve got news for you, you’re about to find out there’s a lot more.”
“I challenge him [Stokes] to cross this river,” said Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey, “and I’ll drive my own car over there and let him throw a rock at me. I’ll have him picking up trash for years.”
The sheriffs are white and Stokes is an African American, which for Mississippi is its own pot boiler. Stokes provocative statement could have been easily ignored—police are legally allowed to cross city/county lines when pursuing suspects— but instead, county sheriffs responded in an incendiary and retaliatory fashion. Bailey only left out the “boy” in addressing Stokes, which would have fit with the more customary way that white Mississippi cops have talked down to African Americans.
The clapbacks make for good macho sauce and news traffic, but they leave unresolved the problem of damage, injuries, and deaths from reckless police car pursuits. This is a problem that has perhaps been exacerbated by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld “qualified immunity” from criminal liability for cops who harm or kill people during police chases. SCOTUS has ruled that it has “never found the use of deadly force in connection with a dangerous car chase to violate the Fourth Amendment, let alone to be a basis for denying qualified immunity.”
Speaking with Priceonomics’ Zachary Crockett on this issue last July, the University of South Carolina criminologist Geoffrey Alpert had a simpler take: “The need to apprehend someone for a traffic offense or a minor crime is not worth the risk of death or injury. … Anything that’s not a violent crime simply shouldn’t be chased.”
*This post has been updated to include a chart from Priceonomics.