CLEARWATER — Detectives walk a fine line with undercover operations.
To make suspects feel at ease, they often agree to meet in public places. But that comes with the risk of bringing the public into play.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Charlie Fuller, executive director of the International Association of Undercover Officers. "Police try to dictate where they do the deal, but that doesn't always work. If you do it out in the woods, he won't meet you there. So you need a little traffic."
Clearwater police undercover detectives arranged such a meeting Monday night in the parking lot at McDonald's, 1860 Gulf to Bay Blvd., just a block from Clearwater High School.
They arranged to purchase 2 ounces of cocaine from a suspect at about 9 p.m. Once there, police say 19-year-old Jeffrey Lee of Clearwater sold them the cocaine and then tried to escape after officers swooped in.
That's when things went awry.
According to police, Lee "aggressively accelerated" after two police cars jammed into his vehicle to keep him from leaving. Detectives identified themselves and "gave several lawful commands" for Lee to stop.
He didn't, Clearwater police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said.
Police shot him.
"At least one police officer was directly in the suspect vehicle's path," Watts said. "In fear for his life, he and another officer fired shots at Lee's vehicle."
Lee was flown to Bayfront Medical Center and was listed in critical condition Tuesday night. He faces five charges, notably two aggravated assault charges on an officer.
The incident raised the questions of whether a McDonald's parking lot was a good choice for a drug arrest and whether public safety was a priority. Police declined to say who picked the location, but defended using the spot.
"Public places are used in narcotics enforcement transactions to fit in with everyday drug activity," Watts said.
Stings in heavily trafficked areas don't always go as planned, however. Last month, undercover officers with St. Petersburg police said they fired at a car of fleeing drug dealers after the men robbed officers at gunpoint in a Wal-Mart parking lot. In 2008, two suspects leaving an undercover operation in Pinellas Park struck a woman's car, killing her.
"Buy-bust operations (where officers buy drugs, and heavily armed officers swoop in) are well-planned and well-supervised transactions," Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein said in a statement. "The risk to the public is very minimal since many specific steps are taken to ensure safety.
"There are multiple undercover and uniformed officers in strategic locations. A very thorough risk assessment is done and if there appears to be any kind of danger, the operation is called off."
Robert Sullivan, who teaches undercover techniques at the University of North Florida, wasn't critical of Clearwater police but said he wouldn't do an arrest at a place such as McDonald's. Instead, he prefers either meeting a suspect at a hotel or trailing the person a few miles after the sale before stopping them.
Both keep the public out of play, he said.
"If you let the suspect drive away, then get him later, nine times out of 10, he doesn't run because he thinks he's committed a traffic infraction," Sullivan said. "(Arrests) are always risky, but you're trying to eliminate as much risk as possible."
Fuller, also a former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent, thought the Clearwater officers reduced the risk with their actions.
"They obviously had good planning because they blocked the car," he said.
This was not Lee's first brush with the law.
He has been arrested 12 times, 10 as a juvenile, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records. He was sentenced as a youthful offender to two years of probation earlier this month on a felony fleeing and eluding charge, court records show.
Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Drew Harwell and Luis Perez contributed to this report. Keith Niebuhr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4156.