SPD cites ‘professional courtesy’ after releasing Columbus officer stopped for DUI

Starkville Police Chief Frank Nichols addresses the media at a press conference Wednesday afternoon (Photo by Logan Kirkland, SDN)
By: 
LOGAN KIRKLAND
Staff Writer

Starkville Police Chief Frank Nichols admitted on Wednesday that a Columbus Police officer was let go without being charged following a DUI traffic stop made by SPD earlier this month.

The Starkville Police Department held a press conference to address the DUI traffic stop, which involved a Columbus Police officer blowing more than double the legal limit.

On March 9 at 12:37 a.m. Sgt. Louis Alexander of the Columbus Police Department was pulled over by a SPD officer for suspicion of driving while under the influence on Highway 12 by Advance Auto Parts.

Alexander was taken to SPD headquarters, where a call was made to CPD notifying them of the situation. Later, an unspecified individual came to SPD headquarters and picked up Alexander from the station.

During executive session at the Columbus City Council meeting Tuesday, an employee of the police department was suspended for 30 days for "conduct unbecoming.”

BODY AND DASH CAMERA FOOTAGE

The body camera and dash camera footage of the DUI traffic stop provided to the Starkville Daily News through a public records request shows the events of the stop.

As SPD officer Henderson collected Alexander's information, he walked back to his patrol car and radioed in to his commanding officer.

"This guy who got pulled over is Columbus PD, but he's 10-55 (driving under the influence), I don't know what to do with this," Henderson said.

"I tell you what, just go on and take him to the station, I'll be up there in just a minute," the responding seargent said.

When Henderson asked Alexander how many drinks he had, Alexander responds with two, or two and a half drinks. Henderson then asked Alexander to step out of the car.

"My man, why are you driving? Why are you driving," Henderson said.

Henderson asked Alexander for a second time how much he had to drink and was met with the same response from Alexander.

"You're showing signs of impairment," Henderson said. "I'm gonna have to take you on, ok?"

As for the interaction, Henderson asked how long Alexander had been with CPD and Alexander responded with 27 to 28 years. When asked about his title, Alexander claimed to be the interim assistant chief and also a sergeant

Henderson administered an eye test as part of field sobriety protocol and asked him to blow in a breathalyzer. Alexander sucked in, rather than blowing into the breathalyzer properly.

"You've had more than two drinks," Henderson said. "I can tell you that now."

Over the radio, the sergeant asked Henderson if he took a PBT, which stands for Preliminary Breathalyzer Test. Alexander blew a .2 Blood Alcohol Content, more than double the legal limit.

Henderson told Alexander he had already spoken with his sergeant and told him Alexander was a member of the CPD.

"He told me to handle it like normal and he's going to take care of it when he gets to the station," Henderson said. "What he means by that, I don't know at this time, I'm going to have to take you into custody."

There appears to be a woman in the passenger seat of the vehicle Alexander was in, and she asked Henderson if he thought he was drunk.

"I don't think he's drunk, I know he's drunk," Henderson said.

Nichols declined to comment on the passenger of the vehicle.

PRESS CONFERENCE

Nichols said officers are allowed to use their discretion when making a decision to cite or put someone under arrest.

"The decision to release Mr. Alexander who exhibited signs of being under the influence of alcohol was a bad judgement call, and is not indicative of the type of service that the Starkville Police Department strives to render," Nichols said. "I would like to ensure the public that this will not be tolerated and we are taking appropriate measures to update our policy to ensure that this never happens again."

Nichols said all uniform officers will receive additional training on the detection of DUI.

As for the incident, Nichols said he was not notified of the occurrence until later that morning on March 9. He said he did not notify Mayor Lynn Spruill until last week.

The dash camera footage shows Alexander was swerving in and out of the lanes, which sparked the suspicion for DUI. As for the procedure, Nichols said what happened at the DUI stop for Alexander is what would normally occur in terms of how it was handled.

"He was administered the portable, which you cannot testify in court to the findings of a portable," Nichols said. "The only thing you can do is testify to being present of alcohol or not so, pass or fail, pass being no presence of alcohol, fail being the presence of alcohol."

Nichols said Alexander did test with the presence of alcohol.

During the press conference, Nichols said Alexander was transported to the police station where the officers called at least one representative from CPD to notify them of the circumstances.

Alexander was transported back to Columbus, but Nichols said he was unsure of how he got back.

When asked if SPD officers are more lenient on law enforcement officers, Nichols said there is an "unwritten rule" for officers to give passes or breaks to off-duty police during traffic stops. He said although it is an unwritten rule, SPD officers need to be more responsible with their discretion.

"A lot of times, it’s a professional courtesy. that's something that's not just new to Starkville, it's something I think is practiced within the law enforcement profession," Nichols said. "If an officer is going to put himself in public and risk danger by driving under the influence, that officer doesn't need to wear this badge."

Nichols would not comment on whether the officers involved would receive any punishment for their actions because it is a personnel matter.

As for SPD's new policy, Nichols said it will now say officers "shall make an arrest" rather than to make an arrest if they deem necessary.

"That courtesy will not be abused from this point and on that courtesy will not be extended here at Starkville Police Department I can assure you that," Nichols said.

MAYOR COMMENTS

Mayor Lynn Spruill called the incident an “unfortunate situation.”

"You never want someone driving drunk on your streets in Starkville, no matter who they are," Spruill said. "You certainly want to adopt a behavior pattern that discourages that, so I certainly believe we need to be treating everyone similarly."

Spruill said she understands the unwritten policy of giving other officers the courtesy of leniency because it has been in place for years, but being lenient on a DUI encourages danger.

"I think we have all come to learn that it's not fair and is a treatment that should not happen and I know it's not going to be happening moving forward," Spruill said. "From my perspective, I'm glad that we are going to address this head on, and know that it's not going to happen again."

Spruill said the way this stop was handled is not a representation of the Starkville community in the sense that all citizens need to believe and trust its police department is treating everyone with the same degree of respect and concern.

As for disciplinary actions for the officers involved, Spruill said the decision would fall under Nichols because he is the direct supervisor.

When asked about the delay in being notified of the incident, she said she wasn't upset because if it had not come to light, the policy would have continued.

"Sometimes you need to go through the pain of growing to get to the point where you make a good judgement call on a policy going forward and so I think this is a clear path forward for us," Spruill said.

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