On July 3, 2014, the Flint, Michigan Police Department got away with murder. Sixty-four year old Jacqueline Nichols was struck and killed by Flint Police Officer Timothy Fagin while he was engaged in a high speed pursuit. It was announced this week that Fagin would only receive a 72 hour suspension for the killing. The state did also approve a settlement to the family of Nichols for 7.7 million dollars.
How can this happen you might ask yourself? It seems that to get away with vehicular homicide you have to either be a cop or Caitlyn Jenner. The rest of us would be hauled away on the spot. The obvious problems with this case are the officer’s complete disregard for state statute or department policy, the two doctrines which govern police behavior. One of the overwhelming problems with this case and all other pursuit cases is that the vast majority of law enforcement agencies are responsible for creating their own pursuit policies. This equates to allowing the lunatics to run the asylum. When you watch the video, you can clearly see the officer accelerating toward the red light, which his suspect just ran. Lets pause for a second. When engaged in a pursuit, from my experiences from the two police agencies I worked for, your supervisor must approve every pursuit. The first agency had a policy of no pursuits but there were very very few exceptions and all were controlled by a boss. That partially removes liability from the officer asking to engage. Next, the officer must communicate every detail to dispatch in real time. This includes location, direction of travel, road and weather conditions, traffic, speed and if any one of these items described doesn’t exactly match the car’s black box and video camera, you’re toast. The second agency I worked for, even after having a history of police pursuit crashes and law suits, thought it best to keep its pursuit policy. I can say that in almost 10 years of police work, I had never been in a pursuit. They are just not worth it for the obvious reasons in the video above. There is no sound in this video, so we will never know what the officer communicated to dispatch and what, if anything, a supervisor chimed in about it.
Flint Michigan isn’t Ferguson. It is a modern police agency with technology and up to date policy. The thing people don’t usually realize is that while driving on public roadways, police generally have to obey the same laws as everyone else. There are statutory exceptions for violating traffic laws while “in the performance of duty” however there are simple common sense protocols that are generally written into agencies SOP or directives. In this case I guarantee that not only does common sense dictate that you should slow and look before blowing through an intersection, but a FOIA request would most certainly reveal that this is the agency policy as well. Safety should be the primary concern in writing a pursuit policy, and if Fagin violated his agency’s policy, then he should suffer the consequences the rest of us would suffer and not be shielded from liability. Why doesn’t Fagin deserve charges much like the Atlanta Officer, Joshua Seick, who killed a woman in a crash while en route to a call? Seick was sentenced to 10 years, unfortunately he will only serve his sentence on weekends. What about Jody Buddemeyer, the Waikoloa, Hawaii police officer who struck and killed a bicyclist and was arrested for his role in the crash. If these states can hold officers accountable in vehicular homicides, so can Michigan.
This is yet another case of police and the justice system covering for each other. The relationship between police and prosecutors is a close one, and when forced to turn on their own, many choose not to. It is this hypocrisy and lack of consistent policy and punishment across the country that is to blame.
Below is an excellent paper written on the subject of police liability in high speed pursuits.