ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg's mayoral race may determine whether city streets see more high-speed police chases.
If Bill Foster or Scott Wagman winds up in the mayor's seat, look for the city to loosen its chase policy so police cruisers can pursue suspects in nonviolent crimes, such as car thieves or drug sellers. Under the city's long-standing policy supported by outgoing Mayor Rick Baker and four of the six major mayoral candidates, police can pursue a vehicle only if the driver is suspected of committing a violent crime or would endanger the public if allowed to escape.
"That policy needs to be changed," said former City Council member Bill Foster, who is endorsed by the Police Benevolent Association that is pushing for more liberal chase rules in St. Petersburg. "St. Petersburg has a reputation for being a magnet for auto theft and other things because of the no-pursuit policy."
Businessman Wagman, who is also courting the police union for an endorsement should he make it out of the crowded Sept. 1 primary, said a looser policy should help deter criminals.
"Criminals know that when they start to get pulled over, they can take off. In fact, I think the policy encourages them to take off, knowing that the cops can't follow them," said Wagman, citing conversations with rank-and-file cops and suggesting training and proper procedures can minimize risks. "There's a difference between a high-speed police chase at noon on Central Avenue and 3 a.m. on U.S. 19."
Police chase policies have been a long-simmering controversy in the Tampa Bay area, where over the past two decades dozens of people, including innocent bystanders, have been killed in hot pursuits that ended badly. Tampa police and the Pinellas and Hillsborough sheriff's offices allow much more latitude for chases than St. Petersburg.
In the St. Petersburg mayor's race, this is one of the few issues offering clear-cut differences among a crowded field of candidates who often seem to differ more on style than substance. City Council member Jamie Bennett, former City Council members Kathleen Ford and Larry Williams, and businessman Deveron Gibbons argue that the risk to innocent civilians outweighs the benefits of a more aggressive chase policy.
"We need to pursue the punks, but I don't want to pursue the punk and kill an innocent family with a child in the car," Williams said in an interview airing today on Political Connections on Bay News 9. "What we have in place is probably the right thing."
Ford, a lawyer, noted that the Florida Supreme Court in 1992 ruled that local governments can be held liable for big damages for chases that go bad. That case stemmed from the deaths of two innocent Palm Harbor women as a result of at least 14 law enforcement vehicles chasing a red-light runner for 25 miles at speeds of more than 100 mph.
"Is a stolen car worth losing your daughter? I don't think so," Ford said.
Gibbons said his sister was injured a few years ago when a fleeing suspect being chased across the city crashed into her vehicle. "I like to support police officers and make sure they have discretion to do their jobs, but I don't want to endanger other people," Gibbons said.
Auto thefts in St. Petersburg dropped sharply between 2007 and 2008, but 2008 figures still show the city has a higher rate of thefts per 100,000 residents than Tampa.
Police Chief Chuck Harmon has resisted the police union's call for a looser chase policy. It's not worth putting people at risk to pursue a car thief who is likely to be quickly released from jail anyway, he said.
"The policy that we have right now is the most sane policy that we could have," said Bennett, citing the risk to innocent bystanders.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.