GONZALES — Gonzales police did what officers have been told to do when they found out a shoplifting suspect they were chasing down busy Airline Highway Thursday hadn't taken much of value from a Walmart store: They broke it off.
But the chase didn't end then. Louisiana State Police were also in pursuit and continued chasing the woman until she eventually crashed on Interstate 10 near College Drive in East Baton Rouge Parish. No one was injured in the crash, but she came to a stop after hitting a Louisiana State Police vehicle on I-10 westbound, troopers said.
Gonzales police and the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office have been sued in recent years over injuries and deaths in past car chases that arose from incidents that were originally relatively minor criminal matters, including store thefts.
In Thursday's case, Gonzales officers say they initially saw Shantell Wyatt, 42, 321 Boncrest Ave., in a car matching the description of suspected shoplifter’s car.
Steven Nethken, a Gonzales police detective supervisor, said that Wyatt was accused of stealing household cleaning materials and other consumables from the store on Airline Highway.
But Nethken said arriving officers had little other information and so gave chase while another group of officers investigated the case further at Walmart.
In a written statement, State Police said they weren't aware that city police had stopped their pursuit, but defended their decision to continue the chase.
Troopers said Friday they don't release policies regarding the policing tactics of officers and public safety. However, they also suggested that even though Gonzales police ended their pursuit, there were still reasons to continue chasing the woman.
"After considering the circumstances surrounding the pursuit and the continuous violations being committed by the suspect, current conditions did not require them to terminate the pursuit," the State Police statement says.
Nethken said Friday that communications were being relayed between city and state police, so there might have been a time lag in what troopers learned about the shoplifting incident that prompted the chase. There also could have been a time lag in State Police learning that Gonzales police decided to stop pursuing Wyatt, he said.
During the Gonzales city police portion of the chase, the pursuing officers were able to run Wyatt’s license plate and identify her as the woman suspected of theft, Nethken said.
The officers investigating the theft at Walmart radioed to the officers in pursuit about the case. A Gonzales police supervisor on duty then made the decision to call off the pursuit, Nethken said.
Nethken said the Gonzales police’s car chase policy is tied to the seriousness of the crime involved.
“Each case is based on its own merits relative to the nature of the crime that’s been committed,” he said.
When city officers backed off, though, they were close to the Ascension-East Baton Rouge parish line and state troopers were already part of the pursuit, Nethken said.
In addition to the various counts in East Baton Rouge, the Gonzales Police Department has arrest warrants for Wyatt on numerous traffic violations, as well as for the theft from Walmart and flight from an officer, city police said.