March 22, 2018 11:00:26 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
Starkville Police Chief Frank Nichols on Wednesday called his department's decision to let off a Columbus police officer pulled over for drunk driving without a ticket "a bad judgment call."
In a candid press conference at police headquarters, Nichols also acknowledged an "unwritten rule" in which law enforcement officers are less likely to ticket or arrest other law enforcement than civilians for similar offenses.
"A lot of times it's a professional courtesy," Nichols said. "That's something that's not just unique to Starkville. ...I think it's practiced within the law enforcement profession. But, you know, I think you've got to get more responsible with that. In today's time, if an officer is going to put himself and the public at risk of danger by driving under the influence, that officer don't need to wear this badge.
"I'm not going to say it happens often," he later added. "I'd say it happens ... every now and then. ... But from this point on, that courtesy won't be extended at Starkville Police Department."
SPD patrol officer Henderson pulled over Louis Alexander, a part-time CPD officer who was off-duty, on Highway 12 near CSpire at about 12:37 a.m. March 9, according to police documents. Nichols said in the press conference Henderson observed Alexander swerving in-and-out of his lane.
A portable breath test reported the presence of alcohol, but Nichols said Alexander was never given a Breathalyzer to measure his blood alcohol level, which contradicts Columbus city officials previously telling The Dispatch his blood contained more than twice the legal limit of .08.
Nichols said he was made aware of the stop later that morning, and the decision to release Alexander without charges was made "up the chain of command" -- among Henderson, a sergeant, a lieutenant and a captain. Nichols would not name any of the officers involved and would not give Henderson's first name upon request.
Alexander was taken to the police station, Nichols said, and a SPD officer notified CPD of the situation.
CPD Chief Fred Shelton confirmed a Columbus investigator, Reginald Adams, drove to Starkville in an unmarked police car to pick up Alexander.
Shelton notified Columbus councilmen on Friday morning of the stop, just before The Dispatch broke the story. Councilmen on Tuesday suspended Alexander for 30 days without pay for "conduct unbecoming."
Nichols said he notified Mayor Lynn Spruill about the stop "sometime last week." He did not comment on whether any of the officers involved in the stop or the decision to let Alexander go would face discipline.
On Wednesday, SPD also released Henderson's dash and body camera footage from the traffic stop.
After Henderson initiates the stop, the footage shows Alexander, who had been driving a pickup with a female passenger, telling Henderson he had "two or two-and-a-half drinks."
When asked, Alexander said he worked for CPD. He later says: "Right now, I'm the interim assistant chief. But I'm a sergeant."
Alexander retired as a sergeant in 2008 and returned in 2015 as a part-time patrolman. The position of interim assistant chief doesn't exist at CPD.
Henderson reports the stop to his sergeant, specifying Alexander was a police officer and asks what to do. The sergeant then tells him to take Alexander to police headquarters and he'd meet them there.
Later, in the stop, the footage shows Henderson administering field sobriety tests -- including the portable breath test that detected alcohol.
"You've had more than two drinks," Henderson tells Alexander.
"I've already talked to my sergeant, and I told him you were a police officer," Henderson later adds. "... He told me to handle it like normal and he'd take care of it when he gets to the station. What he means by that, I don't know."
Alexander also tells Henderson the woman with him has also been drinking, and Henderson tells her she will also be taken to police headquarters where she can call someone for a ride home.
The woman, at one point, asks Henderson if he thinks Alexander is drunk.
"I don't think he's drunk," he replies. "I know he's drunk."
In the past, Nichols said, general policy allowed officers discretion as to whether to arrest a driver for DUI. As of Wednesday, he said, new policy dictates his officers "shall make an arrest" if they detect alcohol through field sobriety tests or other means.
"Moving forward, I would like to assure the public that this will not be tolerated and we're taking appropriate measures to update our policy and ensure that this never happens again," he said. "Additionally, I will see that all uniformed officers receive additional training in ... the detection of DUI. It's always been my promise to be transparent and to provide the highest quality service over Starkville Police Department and that will not change."
Shelton told The Dispatch his officers also will receive additional training, and there would be policy changes in light of the Alexander incident. He did not specify what those would entail.
As to Nichols' assertion that law enforcement has historically taken care of its own on traffic stops, Shelton said he wasn't aware of CPD practicing that way.
"That's his opinion," Shelton said of Nichols. "He's entitled to his opinion."
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