ST. PETERSBURG — Last month, Mayor Bill Foster vowed that his boldest policy move yet — allowing police to chase more suspects —would get its day of reckoning before the City Council.
On Thursday, council members mostly applauded or stayed silent on the new policy, which allows officers to chase burglars and, under certain conditions, car thieves.
"There's a lot of risk involved, but I do think there's value to communicate to our teenage criminals that they shouldn't assume that they won't be chased," said council Member Karl Nurse. "There is a value in changing the dynamics."
Not everyone climbed aboard. In a pointed critique of the new policy, council Chairwoman Leslie Curran said she's strongly opposed to looser chase restrictions because there wasn't proof they actually reduce crime.
Under the policy still in effect, police officers can pursue violent criminals but not stolen vehicles, which is the city's fastest-growing crime problem. Foster said during last year's mayoral campaign he was told repeatedly by voters that the chase policy made the city an easy mark.
Yet when asked by Curran what data he had showing that the policy change would reduce crime, Foster didn't refer to any numbers.
Curran directed her question to police Chief Chuck Harmon.
"What data showed crime would go down?" she asked Harmon.
Criminals may be less prone to steal a car if they know that this new policy is out there, he said, but that's hard to measure.
"Do I have a way to tell?" Harmon said. "Not specifically."
Curran then said: "So we're going to change this based on anecdotal comments made on the campaign trail. I'm dead set against this."
She then asked Harmon: If the chase policy was so necessary, why hadn't he supported it before? It's well known that Harmon was opposed to changing the policy last year during the campaign, saying it wasn't worth the risk to officers and the public to nab offenders. After Foster was elected, Harmon reconciled with his new boss.
"The mayor and I have had discussions," Harmon said. "But I'm here to support the mayor."
The only other council member to have voiced opposition to the chase policy wasn't convinced.
"If it's not going to bring down crime, why do it?" said Wengay Newton. "This was all very one-way. There was no discussion."
Foster, however, forcefully defended the policy shift as a safe measure that makes the city's chase policy consistent with what state law allows. The change isn't a drastic one, he says. It allows officers to chase anyone who commits a "forcible felony" — which adds burglary to the list of crimes that can spark a high-speed chase.
The expanded policy would prevent crimes, Foster said, because potential wrong-doers would know they would be chased or, as is more often the case, pursued at slow speeds.
"I'm about not just reduction of crime, but the prevention of crime," Foster said.
If the chase veers close to neighborhoods during daytime hours or early evening, the chase stops.
"We shouldn't have pursuits at 70 mph when there are children playing in the streets," he said. "I wouldn't chase a violent criminal if there are children playing in the street."
In all, Harmon and Foster said the new policy will cause only about 10 additional chases a year.'
"It's not game on," Foster said, referring to a remark made by St. Petersburg Sgt. Karl Lounge, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police. Lounge said "it's game on now" when Foster unveiled his policy in February.
Harmon said the remark caused quite a stir in the community and within the department. He said he'd remove any supervisors who could approve chases if they display a gung-ho attitude about the new chase rules. Harmon said he'll train officers and supervisors near the end of this month. It goes into effect early next month, he said.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org