On Dec. 30, 2019, Hendersonville Master Patrol Officer Spencer Bristol was hit by a car while he was running across Interstate 65 to chase a fleeing suspect. He died from his injuries that night, leaving behind his wife, Lauren, and daughter Eloise, who was 3 at the time.
The suspect he was chasing received only four years in prison, the maximum sentence.
Last week, the Spencer Bristol Act became law, making the penalty for causing an officer’s death while evading arrest a Class A felony, punishable by up to 60 years in prison.
Previously, evading arrest was a Class A misdemeanor or a Class E felony if a suspect fled in a motor vehicle. If the flight created a risk of death or injury to bystanders or law enforcement, it was a Class D felony. The Class E felony was punishable by at least 30 days in jail. The Class D felony was punishable by at least 60 days.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. William Lamberth and Sen. Ferrell Haile, passed the House and Senate unanimously this year.
Lamberth originally tried to run the bill in 2020, but due to COVID-19, bills with a cost were shelved, he said. The fiscal note of $38,263 is for the longer incarceration times.
“It really just broke my heart for the family, for our community, for our state that we would lose a hero like that and that the perpetrators of that crime would wind up serving just a small amount of time in jail — matter of months,” he said.
Lamberth called Lauren Bristol to ask if it was OK if he named the bill after her husband.
She wrote that it was hard for her to support the bill at first. She wasn’t sure how she felt about throwing jail time around.
“My husband and our child’s father was gone, and no punishment could bring him back,” she wrote in an email.
Lauren Bristol wrote that after a lot of prayer, she came to the conclusion that a higher level felony was appropriate because actions such as drunken driving, reckless driving or evading arrest are choices that can lead to the loss of life.
She wrote that it was a miracle no one else was hurt or killed the night her husband died.
“I desperately wanted a different miracle from that night but I am truly thankful no one else was physically hurt,” she wrote.
Evading arrest appears to be a crime on the rise, especially in Middle Tennessee, according to Hendersonville Police Cmdr. Scott Ryan.
He said he thinks people have learned that law enforcement officers are busy so they may not be caught if they run away.
“It’s just kind of a risk that they’re willing to take,” he said.
He said that increasing the certainty of being caught and the severity of the punishment were two factors that can help crime rates go down.
“We’re certainly hoping that it will deter the fleeing and evading aspect just through the publicity that it has received and knowing that there is a higher consequence,” Ryan said.
Lamberth said he had received questions early on about the increase in penalties, in some cases from a misdemeanor or an E felony to an A or B felony, but he thought it was justified due to the crime.
“Folks should just stop and go through the court system and let that system do its job to protect your rights,” Lamberth said.
Law enforcement support
Law enforcement officers have given an “enormous amount of support” to the bill, Lamberth said.
He added that he believes every single community in the state supports its law enforcement. The bill was a way to show that Tennessee truly does “back the blue.”
“What I’ve heard from law enforcement is that they appreciate this bill because it reflects the enormous amount of danger that they put themselves in every single day to keep all the rest of us safe.”
Ryan shared a similar sentiment, saying it was a message about how serious the legislature takes the dangers that law enforcement officers face.
“It really is significant to us, to the community and to his family. It’s just a huge nod of support for what we do in law enforcement,” he said.
Dan Bristol, Spencer’s father, said his son would be all for what the law did.
“I think he would be happy to see it because he definitely respected the law, and he certainly would not want his fellow officers to be in jeopardy when someone’s running from them,” he said.
Lauren Bristol shared that the law meant several things to her personally along with a hope that it will deter evasions.
“It means justice for future families who may have to carry the burden of loss or life changing injury. It is recognition of the first responders who run towards danger. It is a reminder of the strength of spirit my husband embodied as he took his last breath. It means peace knowing that another family will never sit in a room to hear the details of how their family member died followed immediately by the words ‘two to four years.’ It’s a legacy for our daughter that even though really bad things can happen they can also bring change — that there is always room to do better, be better.”
Dan and Lauren Bristol shared about how Spencer’s death brought the community together.
Lauren Bristol said she couldn’t begin to describe the support the community had given her and Eloise.
“How blessed are we to live in a community that grieves together, that rallies around those who are suffering, who hold each other up?” she wrote.
HPD officers who worked with Spencer Bristol have become like family to his wife and daughter.
“They have been stand-in father figures for Eloise, they have mowed my yard, they have lost sleep to help me and Eloise. What were friendships before has become an almost unbreakable bond,” she wrote.
Dan Bristol said that since his son’s death, he’s seen the first responders and law enforcement officers of Sumner County work together more closely than ever before.
“That’s absolutely a reality,” Ryan said.
“When something like this hits ... you see how large the family of first responders are because everybody wants to be there to help their brother and sister to make it through and continue the fight and continue in the service,” he said.
Ryan said he received phone calls from agencies all over the country offering to help and to express their condolences.
“It gives you that support needed to get past the grief and to continue serving because ultimately Spencer gave his life in service, and that’s what he would want from all of us,” he said.
Dan Bristol also shared that the organization Tunnels to Towers paid off his son’s mortgage after his death. Dan Bristol has pledged to raise 100,000 new members for the organization, which supports injured and fallen service members and first responders, including paying off the mortgages on homes. On Oct. 9, Spencer Bristol’s birthday, Tunnels to Towers is hosting a 5K in Hendersonville to raise money for the organization.
Spencer Bristol’s legacy
The Spencer Bristol Act is far from the only impact the officer had and continues to have in Hendersonville.
Ryan described Bristol, who worked at the HPD for four years, as having a servant’s heart.
“Every aspect of his life seemed to center around serving others, whether it be the service for his country or the service for the community or serving his family and friends,” he said.
Dan Bristol said his son had lived across the street from Jim Lawson, an HPD officer who died from COVID-19 in April 2020. Spencer Bristol was fascinated by the police, but he actually wanted to be a Navy SEAL.
He served in the Navy from 2007 to 2012 and was deployed to Afghanistan.
When he came back to Hendersonville, he joined the police department, where he got to help people, something he loved doing.
Spencer Bristol brought his combat medic training to Hendersonville and taught the HPD officers combat triage, his father said. Now, the training is a class for all officers.
“Since that’s happened, they’ve already saved several lives using that,” he said.
Dan Bristol said his son never met a stranger and that people gravitated toward him.
“If you look at the funeral procession, you just saw literally hundreds of people lining the streets. He had people that flew in from all over the country that he served with, that he met in different places,” he said.
Even people whom most people wouldn’t think much about felt Spencer Bristol’s impact. A McDonald’s worker he saw at the drive-thru showed up at the funeral, and a gas station clerk told Lauren Bristol that her husband would always make sure she felt safe when she was alone overnight.
Dan Bristol said that even as a kid, he used to work with special-needs children in his karate classes and in Sunday school. Lauren Bristol shared that at her husband’s funeral, his classmates told her that they were “outcasts,” but that he was kind to them, even when others weren’t.
“This is exactly how I want our daughter to be,” Lauren Bristol wrote.
Spencer Bristol also treated everyone with respect, even the suspects he arrested.
“I have been shocked by the number of people who approached me with condolences who had met Spencer when he was arresting them,” Lauren Bristol wrote. “I heard over and over that he treated them with respect and that he seemed to care.”
Dan Bristol said that after his son’s death, a man he had arrested came to court and pleaded guilty even though there was no one there to press charges.
“The guy that Spencer had arrested on drug charges actually stood up and said that he was going to plead guilty. He said Spencer changed his life. He just treated him with respect,” Dan Bristol said.
Lauren Bristol shared that the condolences from politicians, musicians and others from around the country were an honor, but that the stories of her husband’s kindness truly speak to the person he was and the person she wants her daughter to be.
“Spencer was undoubtedly a hero, but what I want people to remember most is that he was kind and that he was a friend to almost everyone,” she wrote.