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Last week's police chase in Tampa wouldn't have happened in St. Petersburg

TAMPA — The police chase that ended with a car smashed into the side of a Quiznos sandwich shop last week likely would never have happened in St. Petersburg — even under a proposal aimed at loosening the city's chase policy.

Frankie Leonard hadn't done anything violent when Tampa police tried to stop him Friday. No outstanding warrants, no suggestion the car he was driving was stolen.

Police just thought his windows looked too dark, which could have led to a $101 fine.

But then Leonard refused to stop, so police tried to box him in between two squad cars. Leonard rammed one of the cars and sped away. Police followed. They chased him around Seminole Heights until he smashed into the side of the sandwich shop.

Only later did they discover that Leonard has a 30-page rap sheet in Florida, served time for homicide and has a history of fleeing to elude arrest and assault.

After officers cuffed him, Leonard banged his head on a curb and started eating grass. He was booked on charges of aggravated battery, aggravated fleeing to elude and resisting arrest, and he was released on $15,500 bail.

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Leonard's aggressive behavior toward police shows he posed a danger.

"If someone is willing to ram a police car, then you don't know what they're capable of doing when they're dealing with an unarmed public," McElroy said. "It shows that he's a threat to society."

Under current policies, St. Petersburg police can chase someone who tries to assault law enforcement, such as ramming a police car.

But it would not have gotten to a chase because officers would not try to box in a motorist over a minor traffic infraction, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

"We would not be in that situation," Proffitt said.

In the past five years, St. Petersburg police engaged in 76 chases. From 2004 to 2008, the most recent dates available, Tampa police were in 284 chases.

Tampa police point to the pursuit policy as a factor in the city's crime reduction.

"There's no doubt that pursuits are an effective and necessary tool in law enforcement, but they're also one of the most dangerous things police officers do to protect the public," McElroy said. "The officer involved always has to balance the risk factors vs. the need to catch the criminal."

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said last week that he supports loosening the police chase policy, which restricts officers to chasing suspects only for violent crimes. In the next month or two, police also will be able to chase suspected burglars and some car thieves.

Critics argue that chasing or forcibly stopping suspects for minor infractions puts other drivers in danger. But other law enforcement agencies that already have looser chase policies say taking that risk can put dangerous people behind bars.

Leonard's first arrest was in 1977 for homicide. He was sentenced in 1978 to five years in prison and released early in 1980, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

After that, he was arrested dozens more times. He was in and out of prison until 1999, records show, behind bars for a total of about eight years.

His litany of charges includes aggravated child abuse, throwing a deadly missile, armed robbery, aggravated battery, kidnapping, auto theft, drug possession, carrying a concealed weapon, larceny, criminal mischief, violating parole and several charges of fleeing to elude arrest.

Last week's police chase in Tampa wouldn't have happened in St. Petersburg 02/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 12:10am]

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