Wharton, Police Director Armstrong on Fatal Car Crash

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Several years ago while doing a ride-along with a Memphis police officer for a story, I was surprised when the squad car accelerated to 70 miles an hour going east on Walnut Grove. There was no hot pursuit, so I took it as a demonstration of something I had seen often enough from my house near North Parkway. Well, I thought, when there's danger, the police are needed right away if not sooner.

Sometimes, though, the danger is the police car itself. Last Sunday, a speeding police car slammed into another car on Crump Boulevard south of downtown and killed two of its passengers, a 54-year-old woman and her 13-year-old daughter from Senatobia who were visiting relatives in Memphis. Two other passengers were critically injured and the officer was also injured but is no longer hospitalized.

"With a heavy heart," a grim Mayor A C Wharton and Police Director Toney Armstrong met with reporters Tuesday, 48 hours after the accident. Wharton said the crash is under investigation by the city and the Tennessee Highway Patrol and did not give out any key details. He said he would press to get the investigations done quickly.

Following the news conference, the mayor's office identified the officer as Alex Beard, commissioned in March 2011.

Asked if the police car had its lights and siren on, Wharton said "that is the crux of the investigation." Witnesses have told reporters the police car was speeding and did not have lights or siren on.

Armstrong said Beard was responding to another officer's call for backup. He said that officers are "mandated to operate their vehicles in a safe manner." In emergencies they are supposed to have their siren and lights on. Otherwise they are supposed to follow the same laws as other drivers.

Wharton said he is aware of community complaints about police officers speeding when they seemingly don't have to. He said even before the accident he had decided the city should take additional measures to see that policies are followed because of an "unacceptable" number of accidents involving police and other city vehicles. He said he will press the City Council for approval of more tracking technology.

But on the particulars of the crash, Wharton and Armstrong, who were joined by City Attorney Herman Morris, provided little new information. Armstrong acknowledged that speed appears to have been a factor. He said the call for backup involved a mental health issue. He said that, nationally, more officers are injured in traffic accidents than in violent crimes.

The scene of the crash is a tricky intersection of Crump, Walnut, and Georgia, with a traffic light on Crump controlling traffic in six directions.

State law 2920-403 passed in 2007 requires cities to have a minimum of $700,000 in liability insurance. Memphis attorney Lanier Fogg said the city could have more than that, and recommended that motorists get a $1 million umbrella insurance policy that covers uninsured motorists in addition to the standard policy with a maximum payout of $300,000.

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