A Collegedale, Tennessee, police officer with an extensive history of pursuits, including one that led to a deadly crash in July 2019, has been promoted to sergeant.
Sgt. Burlon Hayworth was found to have operated within department policy during that July 14 pursuit that killed 32-year-old Randy Goforth, who, according to records, was suspected of speeding.
The department reviews each pursuit to determine whether it's according to policy.
Since 2015, Collegedale police — a 24-officer department in a city with a population of 11,500 — have engaged in 70 pursuits, 21 of which were carried out collectively by two officers: Hayworth and David Myrick, who no longer works for the department. Other officers averaged two pursuits.
By comparison, Chattanooga's police department — a 500-officer agency in a city of 180,000 — had 219 pursuits in the same amount of time. Collegedale's rate of engaging in pursuits per capita is five times that of Chattanooga's.
High-speed chases have long been a Catch-22 in law enforcement. On the one hand, police have to avoid putting the public in danger by operating a 2-ton vehicle at high speed while pursuing an erratic driver who is also in a 2-ton vehicle. On the other hand, police don't want to send the message that perpetrators can get away if they flee.
And while other agencies have made their pursuit policies more strict, Collegedale has made its policy more lenient. In 2016, police Chief Brian Hickman approved a policy that removed specific conditions for when to engage in a high-speed pursuit, including the need for probable cause that the suspect has committed or is going to commit a felony.
Now the decision to pursue is left solely up to officer discretion.
"You can train and try to teach [discretion], but — in some cases it works out well, in some cases not," said James F. Hodgson, sociology/criminal justice program director and professor of sociology and criminal justice at Averett University.
Collegedale Police Department spokeswoman Bridgett Raper, Chief Brian Hickman and Hayworth did not return requests for comment or respond to questions about why the department changed its pursuit policy.
A DEADLY PURSUIT
In the Goforth case, Hayworth spotted him traveling at what he estimated to be 70-80 mph in a 30 mph zone. After a brief chase, Goforth crashed his car. He died three days later.
While Goforth wasn't suspected of doing anything apart from speeding, a toxicology report later showed his blood alcohol content was at 0.11%, just under twice the legal limit. Law enforcement experts do not encourage chasing DUI suspects.
Body camera footage shot at the scene of the crash shows Hayworth admitting to being involved in the crash while stating he's "not going to touch anything until traffic [unit] gets here."
A few minutes later, then-Sgt. Robert Hirko is heard telling a Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputy that he wants the investigation to remain with Collegedale police and that the agencies "can debate it."
The audio is muted multiple times as Hirko makes phone calls. According to Collegedale Police Department policy, officers are allowed to mute audio when they are not in direct contact with citizens.
Then Hirko, who had only briefly returned to the crash scene one time after making his phone calls, tells a Hamilton County sergeant that Goforth drove up Bennie Lane and "blacked out."
However, just minutes earlier, officers who were with Goforth, including Hayworth — the pursuing officer — still didn't know what happened. They are heard questioning where Goforth was trying to go and why he allegedly hadn't hit the brakes.
The county sergeant tells Hirko that the sheriff's office traffic investigators are on their way, to which Hirko responds, "I mean, I'm not gonna get in a pissin' contest with you, sarge. We terminated it."
The county sergeant acknowledges Hirko's claim that the pursuit was terminated and tells him he wouldn't call the crash "a pursuit gone bad."
Meanwhile, Officer Corey Loftis, who is still at the scene, talks to two county deputies about having the state investigate the crash.
"I'd get state to work the wreck because there's going to be a f------ fatality, probably," Loftis says.
"This is due to a pursuit?" the deputies ask.
"This is due to a pursuit. This is going to be a state wreck," Loftis responds.
But the investigation ultimately went to Hamilton County because the crash took place outside Collegedale city limits.
Hamilton County Sheriff's Office spokesman Matt Lea said Collegedale police can request either the sheriff's office or the Tennessee Highway Patrol to work crashes involving their personnel.
With Chattanooga, however, pursuits that result in fatal crashes are treated as officer-involved shootings. The department would contact the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office, and the district attorney would decide which agency investigates — either the sheriff's office or the highway patrol.
"The officer operated within department policy," Collegedale police spokeswoman Bridget Raper said in an email. "We have nothing further to add."
HISTORY OF PURSUITS
The Times Free Press requested an updated copy of Hayworth's disciplinary records on Jan. 6. By Jan. 23, however, after months — years in some cases — of no review, all of the department's pending pursuits had been evaluated. Fifty-five of the 70 cases were ruled as being compliant with policy. The newspaper did not receive an updated disciplinary file for Hayworth after all pursuit reviews had been closed.
As of Jan. 6, though, Hayworth's disciplinary file shows he had been reviewed for 11 pursuits since being hired as an officer in January 2015, a number that is "extremely high" for a smaller department, according to law enforcement experts.
— Two pursuits were found to be against policy.
— Three were determined to be within policy, but there was no body or dash camera footage of the incidents. Hayworth claimed the cameras were not working.
— Two were deemed within policy but made no mention of whether any dash or body camera footage existed in order to make that determination.
— One was determined to be within policy and did involve body and dash camera footage.
— Three more pursuits were still pending review, the oldest of which dated back to May 2019.
Ten of Hayworth's 11 pursuits took place between 2017 and 2019.
Of the cases that did have a finalized review as of Jan. 6, all but one of them — the Goforth pursuit — either noted problems with body-worn and in-car cameras, with either the audio or video not working or not being turned on at all, or did not mention the equipment at all. In fact, one reviewing supervisor noted that "there [was] not sufficient information available to provide an accurate conclusion" in one case.
Some of the reviews also noted ineffective communication between the pursuing officer and the field supervisor, who is supposed to oversee the pursuit.
Multiple pursuits began in the Walmart parking lot on Little Debbie Parkway.
None of Hayworth's pursuits are known to have triggered an internal affairs investigation.
"The chief would authorize an internal affairs investigation, if needed," said the city's human resources manager, Kristen Boyd.
How the chief decides when an investigation is needed, however, is not clear, and the department has not responded to repeated questions about how the internal affairs process works.
Hayworth's unusually high number of pursuits raises questions, criminal justice professor Hodgson said.
"How does an officer entice someone to run from them?" he asked. "Maybe he or she is incredibly efficient and stops a lot of cars — the more [people] you're trying to pull over, the chances of you coming upon someone who's going to refuse to stop are much greater."
Hayworth has indeed received much praise from his supervisors, noting that "his productivity is remarkable." In fact, his high productivity has been taken into consideration when supervisors noted disciplinary issues, such as not completing proper paperwork, speeding or texting while driving.
During the first half of 2018, Hayworth "made 84 arrests out of the department's total of 454, which is the highest of any other patrol officer in the department," an entry in his personnel file states.
The Collegedale Police Department had been under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation since July 2019 for an alleged traffic ticket quota system. And while Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston noted that there was evidence implying a quota system, it wasn't enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. He closed the case last week without taking action.
"Is [a pursuit] worth me or you getting injured — or worse — so the state or the county or the city can write a speeding ticket? I would argue the answer is, 'Absolutely not,'" Hodgson said. "There's got to be more factors."
Coming later: A Collegedale officer drove a Chattanooga officer home after stopping him for suspected DUI.