The families of two Houston residents killed in a series of recent traffic accidents involving local law enforcement said Thursday they believe their loved ones' deaths are part of an ongoing problem with police pursuits and driver training for officers.
"I looked at police officers as to protect and serve, not kill and put an impact on my family," said Harriet Payne, whose 75-year-old husband Charles Payne was killed on Dec. 26 as he had left his church and his car was hit by a Houston police officer while making a left turn. "They need to be held accountable and that's what I'm expecting. I'm hoping justice will be served."
But the head of the Houston police union said he doesn't believe there was any malice in the recent series of crashes.
"This was nothing more than a tragic accident," Doug Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, said of Payne's death.
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Payne was one of three individuals who have died since December in a string of crashes involving Houston police and the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
Besides Payne, 66-year-old Michael Wayne Jackson was killed on Dec. 4 as he stood on a sidewalk and was hit by a Houston police car that lost control as it was on its way to help in a police pursuit. On Jan. 12, 22-year-old Autrey Davis was killed after a Harris County Sheriff's Office deputy collided with her car as he was chasing a robbery suspect. Davis' two young children were also in the car and her 3-year-old son suffered permanent brain damage, family members said Thursday.
The recent crashes come after a grand jury in July indicted former Houston police officer Matthew Valdez on a charge of criminally negligent homicide after crashing into the vehicle of 71-year-old Walter Cooper in November 2020. Valdez was rushing to a high-priority call but had not turned on his lights and sirens.
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Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the families of Charles Payne and Autrey Davis, called on police and the sheriff's office to review their pursuit policies and focus on using technology such as traffic cameras in helping them arrest fleeing suspects.
"You can rely on those things, versus putting all these innocents' lives in danger," said Crump, a Florida-based attorney who in recent years has represented victims of police brutality and vigilante violence and has been the lawyer for the families of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Crump suggested during a news conference that the recent series of crashes were another example of police policies that endanger minority communities as such pursuits don't tend to occur in more affluent neighborhoods. The three people who were killed in the recent series of crashes in Houston were Black.
"Don't do high-speed pursuits in our community or in any community," Crump said.
Simone Teal, Davis' mother, said the deputy who crashed into her daughter's car should be held responsible for her death.
"I lost my baby and it could have been avoided," said a tearful Teal. "I'm suffering."
But Griffith said he doesn't believe there was any criminal intent by officers in the recent series of crashes.
"I feel for all the families that have lost a loved one because of this because it is tragic. But we have accidents on the road every single day in which people are killed," Griffith said.
The Harris County's District Attorney's Office is investigating the crashes that killed Davis, Payne and Jackson and will present the cases to a grand jury, said spokesman Dane Schiller.