Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

Deadly toll in police chases isn't a new story

It was nearing 1 a.m. when the souped-up Chevy blew through the red light at the intersection of Park Street and Pasadena Avenue. By the time Sheriff's Deputy Ken Rico flipped on his flashing lights, the Chevy was screaming down the road at more than 90 mph.

• • •

It was just past 1 a.m. when Ada Brown heard the wail of sirens from somewhere down the street. Waiting for her daughters Susan and Judith to return from a night of dancing at Confetti's nightclub in Tampa, she began pacing the floor of her Palm Harbor home, imploring God to bring her girls home safely.

• • •

Deputy Bob Gualtieri was on patrol that June night in 1984. He listened on the radio as 14 cops from three agencies joined a 20-mile pursuit. The Chevy, with a single male driver, sailed through red lights as it traveled up 66th Street and then U.S. 19 toward Palm Harbor where it slammed into a Mustang at Tampa Road. "That night was a game-changer,'' said Gualtieri, now Pinellas County sheriff. "It still resonates today.''

• • •

Nearly 30 years have passed since Lawrence Brown's daughters were killed in that fiery wreck as his wife paced and prayed, unaware the family's world had already been upended less than a mile from their front door.

Five days later, Brown stood nearby as his daughters were buried side by side. Six years after that, his wife was laid beside them. Lawrence said the toll of losing two of her children weighed heavily on Ada Brown's heart and led to declining health.

For Lawrence, the anger has long since faded, and much of the sadness, too. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn't think of Susan, 23, and Judith, 20, but he says he doesn't dwell on the senselessness of their deaths. At least not until he sees headlines about another debate concerning the need for high-speed pursuits.

"It's a shame this is still going on,'' said Brown. "I wonder if they think at all about the ramifications.''

The tragedy of the Brown family, as well as the driver of the Chevy who also perished, looked like a defining moment in the story of vehicle chases. Pinellas Park Police changed its pursuit policy soon afterward. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office and law enforcement agencies across Florida soon followed when the Supreme Court ruled the Browns could sue for damages.

Unfortunately, the perfect solution has never been found. Loosen the policy too much, and you run the risk of innocent people being caught in chases. Restrict the policy too much, and criminals know they can run with impunity.

This is why you often see situations like the St. Petersburg Police Department, which tightened rules at the request of new Mayor Rick Kriseman last week, just four years after relaxing rules at the behest of then-Mayor Bill Foster. Under the new policy, police can pursue only in cases of violent felonies.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office is also revamping its chase policy with an announcement expected soon. Unlike St. Petersburg's plan, Gualtieri does not want to tie pursuit to specific criminal offenses.

Instead, he wants deputies and supervisors to consider a variety of factors, essentially weighing the risk of public safety in a pursuit versus allowing a suspect to run away. Traffic, weather and the surrounding area will also be considered, as well as whether the suspect's identity is known.

"If you need to knock on someone's door in the middle of the night to tell them a husband or wife or son or daughter was killed in a pursuit, then you damn well better have a good reason for that pursuit,'' Gualtieri said. "I wholeheartedly agree that nobody's life is worth a property crime offense.''

As much as Gualtieri's plan makes sense, there will always be gray areas.

It is easy to say the pursuit of a traffic offender 30 years ago did not justify the loss of two innocent lives. Yet Rico, the deputy who began the chase, says the Chevy was driving recklessly from the time he spotted it, and he feared for the safety of others. How would it look if he let the car pass, and it caused a fatal accident a mile down the road?

Rico kept the car in his sight and stayed on the radio so deputies could clear intersections ahead. By the time the Chevy reached Palm Harbor, Rico had lost sight of it. A deputy was parked at Tampa Road and U.S. 19, but didn't stop the Browns' Mustang because he didn't know the Chevy was so near.

"From the very beginning he was going more than 100 mph, and he wasn't going to stop. He tried ramming the Pinellas Park police cars,'' said Rico, who is now a pastor at Saint Petersburg Community Church. "At that point, the population needed to be protected, and that's what I was doing.

"It is very, very unfortunate the two young ladies were killed. I felt very badly about that, although I don't think it was my fault.''

The Browns sued the various police agencies involved in the chase, and received settlements of $750,000 and $100,000 from Pinellas Park and Kenneth City before the Legislature approved a $1.6 million payment from the Sheriff's Office.

"It's hard around the holidays because I'll get cards from friends of the girls,'' Lawrence Brown said. "They all have families of their own, and now their children are the same age my girls were when they died.

"I don't regret their happiness, I'm glad to hear from them, but it's hard to know my girls never got the same chance.''

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