A Louisiana State Police trooper who initiated a high-speed chase on Monday night that led to a fiery crash in Lakeview, sending four people — including an infant with a broken leg — to the hospital, has been involved in at least two other high-speed chases in New Orleans since June, The Lens has learned.
Trooper Henry Kirsch is working with the New Orleans Police Department — which has a longstanding policy prohibiting high-speed pursuits in most cases — as part of an initiative meant to combat violent crime. But the attempted traffic stop that led to the chase was over a few minor traffic infractions, according to police records.
The incident drew criticism from the ACLU of Louisiana, which said it was an example of the NOPD attempting to get around its vehicle pursuit policy and part of a broader pattern of questionable police work that has stemmed from the city’s recent partnership with the Louisiana State Police.
“This week’s high-speed car chase through residential neighborhoods, which sent an infant to the hospital and injured two others, is just the latest example in recent years of NOPD flouting its own policy restricting vehicle chases,” said Alanah Odoms, executive director of the organization.
Kirsch is working with the NOPD as part of a joint task force known as Operation Golden Eagle, which was touted as a partnership that would primarily focus on violent crime.
“We will be concentrating on violent crime,” NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson said when the partnership was announced. “Therefore, the areas that we see an increase in criminal activity will be our main focus in this initiative.”
The pursuit on Monday resulted from an attempted traffic stop by NOPD officers because the car, a black Infiniti, allegedly had illegally tinted windows and its license plate was not visible. When the car fled, Kirsch, who was behind the NOPD officers, began the pursuit, a police report says.
During the chase, the driver of the vehicle, 24-year-old Roger Kennedy, “drove the wrong way on one way streets, ran vehicles off the road nearly causing several traffic crashes, exceeded the speed limit in excess of 25 miles per hour in a residential zone, disregarded numerous red lights and stop signs,” Kirsch wrote in his report. The pursuit ended when Kennedy ran a stop sign in Lakeview and crashed into another vehicle. Kennedy’s vehicle then spun into an electrical pole, and caught fire.
In the vehicle with Kennedy, it turned out, was a passenger — James Pierre — holding his 7-month-old son. The infant, who was not in a car seat, suffered a fractured tibia. Kennedy and Pierre had bruises and lacerations, according to the police report. The driver of the other vehicle broke an arm. All four were taken to the hospital.
NOPD found a small amount of marijuana, pills, and around $300 dollars in Kennedy’s car. Kennedy was booked on drug possession charges, along with aggravated flight from an officer, negligent injuring, and cruelty to a juvenile. Pierre was booked on charges of child desertion, improper supervision of a child by a parent, along with drug possession.
The NOPD pursuit policy, which was implemented as part of the department’s federal consent decree, is restrictive. It only allows officers to initiate a pursuit if a suspect has committed a crime of violence and “the escape of the subject would pose an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person.” Even in those cases, an officer must still get permission from a supervisor in order to pursue a fleeing car. The NOPD manual says the policy is intended to “stress a balance between the importance of apprehending offenders and the high risk nature of vehicle pursuits.”
Despite the policy, a report from earlier this year found that in 2019, over half of the vehicle pursuits by NOPD officers were in response to non-violent offenses. While the report did not address consequences faced by officers involved, they are subject to potential discipline for violating the policy. The department’s restrictions on chases, however, do not apply to State Police troopers working in New Orleans.
It is unclear to what degree NOPD took part in the pursuit on Monday. In his report, Kirsch wrote that “additional LSP and NOPD marked units (with lights and sirens activated) pursued the Infinity throughout the entirety of the pursuit.” But a report in The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, citing court documents, said that NOPD “didn’t chase the car.” A spokesperson for the NOPD did not respond when asked to clarify whether or not NOPD units engaged in the pursuit, and whether or not it was authorized.
Asked whether NOPD officers requested backup during the traffic stop and whether they requested that LSP initiate the pursuit when the driver fled, neither NOPD nor the State Police provided a direct response.
“NOPD attempted to stop a vehicle for an equipment traffic violation,” Gary Scheets, a spokesperson for NOPD, said in an email. “Vehicle came to stop, as officers exited to approach, suspect vehicle fled.” Scheets did not elaborate on how LSP became involved.
Kate Stegall, a public information officer with LSP, said that “Troopers were in close proximity and arriving to assist when the vehicle began to flee.”
Scheets denied that NOPD officers were using LSP to initiate car chases that would otherwise be prohibited, saying only that the NOPD officers involved adhered to the pursuit policy.
“Almost all U.S. law enforcement agencies have adopted a restrictive pursuit policy, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP),” Odoms, of the ACLU, said. “That is because serious vehicular accidents endanger the lives of community members, police officers, and those persons being pursued. The significant risk to human life must be weighed carefully against the suspected offense, which in this case, was the possession of narcotics.
Neither department suggested that law enforcement had any reason to suspect there were drugs inside the vehicle prior to the stop or during the pursuit. Both said that the tinted windows did not allow officers to view the number of passengers inside the vehicle. The police report did not mention any prior surveillance of the vehicle to suggest that it was suspected of anything beyond the traffic infractions.
In her statement, Stegall said that “Louisiana State Police strives to create a safer community throughout the state by combating traffic and criminal violations which reduce crime and provide safer highways.”
But Odoms said that the NOPDs partnership with State Police is doing the opposite.
“When NOPD announced ‘Operation Golden Eagle,’ they told New Orleans residents that the purpose was to focus on violent crime and keep us safe,” she said. “Instead, it has enabled months of reckless police activity that is endangering our community.”
Asked to explain how the stop fits into the broader mission of the Operation Golden Eagle, Scheets answered another, unasked question.
“Yes,” he said. “The officers were working Operation Golden Eagle at the time of the traffic stop.”
Three chases since June
Neither of the other two recent vehicle pursuits Kirsch was involved in stemmed from crimes of violence as defined in Louisiana law, though both were in response to individuals suspected of carrying firearms.
One occured in June, and the other in July, according to reports filed by Kirsch. Each began after officers watching crime camera footage at the Real Time Crime Center allegedly saw peopled concealing — and in one instance brandishing — firearms. That information was relayed to law enforcement officers on the street, who then attempted to conduct traffic stops of the individuals suspected of having the firearms.
In both instances, the tint of the vehicle’s windows was used as part of the justification for making the stop.
The vehicles then fled, and officers initiated a pursuit. According to police reports, the fleeing vehicles forced other vehicles off the road, travelled the wrong way down one-way streets, ignored traffic signals and travelled well above the legal speed limit.
Neither of the pursuits ended in crashes, however. In both instances the drivers and passengers in the vehicles eventually fled on foot, and were arrested. Four arrests were made between the two incidents, with the individuals booked on a variety of gun charges in addition to charges related to the chase.
Stegall, the LSP spokesperson, did not comment on the fact that Kirsch has been involved in at least three pursuits this summer alone.
“LSP will compile the final list of statistics at the conclusion of the detail,” she said. “We are committed to assisting the NOPD in their effort to reduce violent crime in the City of New Orleans.”