Thursday, January 18, 2018
Public safety

Officer shoots into car in St. Petersburg; police union criticizes agency rules as too restrictive

ST. PETERSBURG — An incident on Wednesday night in which a police officer shot at a moving car has revived debate over the department's shooting policy.

In that shooting, which occurred about 8:30 p.m. at the Quick Stop convenience store at 1440 49th St. S, officers spotted a black Mazda 6 with a license plate that had been reported stolen and did not match the car. In three unmarked police vehicles, the officers approached the driver, who ran to the Mazda, got inside, and backed up so forcefully he drove onto and over the hood of a police cruiser.

"Another foot or two and it might have caved in the cruiser window," said Police Department spokesman Mike Puetz.

The Mazda's driver then pulled forward off the cruiser and drove toward Officer Michael DeMark, 29, who was standing outside his patrol car and was struck in the leg.

Officer Neil Rambaran, 32, fired multiple rounds at the Mazda, which smashed into two other unmarked police cruisers before driving away and heading east on 15th Avenue S, according to police.

Police don't know who the driver was or if he was injured, but described him as a black man in his 20s who stood about 6-foot-1 and was last seen wearing a black hoodie and black jeans.

Department officials are investigating the shooting, Puetz said.

Controversy over St. Petersburg officers shooting at moving cars has surrounded the department for months, following several similar incidents. It's long been the department's policy to ban shooting at moving vehicles and the occupants inside. There are some exceptions, such as when someone in the car is threatening officers with a gun.

Last month, an officer shot a 17-year-old fleeing from police in a stolen truck; the teen remains in critical condition. It marked the third time that police had fired at a moving car in 2013. In one of those cases, an officer was fired.

Prompted by Wednesday night's shooting, Mark Marland, president of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, issued a scathing critique of the new policy, which he said puts officers' lives in danger.

"The message has been clearly sent by the outgoing chief that it's acceptable to try and run down police officers and citizens alike as he has tied the hands of the officers so they are unable to protect themselves or citizens by eliminating the threat," he wrote in a news release.

Marland called on Mayor Rick Kriseman to reverse the policy change.

A police spokesman referred questions about the policy to the mayor's office.

"The mayor has no comment on the specific statement, but he will review that particular policy with the chief of police," Ben Kirby, the city's communication director, said Thursday.

Officers found the stolen Mazda on Thursday morning abandoned in an empty lot at 8414 Fifth St. N. Its license plate was missing. Officials said the car had bullet holes, but no traces of blood — a possible indication that the driver was not hit in the shooting.

The Mazda was stolen Jan. 2 in Palm Harbor. The tag on the car was stolen from a blue Chrysler the next day.

DeMark, the officer whose leg was hit by the fleeing vehicle, did not suffer a serious injury and returned to work Thursday, Puetz said. The officer who was inside the unmarked cruiser when the Mazda drove onto its hood dove into the back seat to protect himself and was also unharmed.

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