Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Public safety

Recent police chases in St. Petersburg prompt call for review of pursuit policy

ST. PETERSBURG — A pair of recent high-speed chases that resulted in injuries to innocent residents has once again thrown a spotlight on the city's police pursuit policy.

Two years ago, a newly elected Mayor Bill Foster prodded the Police Department to loosen its restrictive chase policy as a way to crack down on crime.

But in the wake of the recent crashes — just two weeks apart — some in the community say they'd be more comfortable if officers backed off from chases altogether.

"There's a lot of frustration and anger out there," said Ray Tampa, former president of the local NAACP chapter, who said he's gotten about a dozen calls about the issue. "What I'm hearing out there is: Stop. Stop the chases. People's lives are being put at risk."

And at least two City Council members have demanded an update on pursuits, which statistics show have increased since the policy shift.

The year that change went into effect, 2010, there were 16 police pursuits in the city, according to department data.

A year later, that number more than doubled to 34. Police have recorded at least 11 pursuits so far this year.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon, who is scheduled to talk about police chases at Thursday's meeting, said he takes concerns about the policy seriously.

However, he also said he wanted to stress that his officers aren't "out there chasing people willy-nilly."

Harmon doesn't believe the increase can be completely attributed to the policy change. Many of the chases in the past two years would have been allowed under the old policy as well, he said.

"I think for our department we've done our best to try to limit these things to when they're absolutely necessary," he said.

St. Petersburg officers used to be allowed to chase only those suspected of violent crimes. Officers can now pursue anyone they suspect of committing a "forcible felony," which can include crimes like burglary and auto theft.

The chief said the department scrutinizes the policy after each pursuit.

"We take it pretty seriously," Harmon said. "These reviews come all the way up to me."

For some, that's not enough.

"We're hearing a lot from constituents out there," said City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran, who asked for more information about police pursuits during a workshop Thursday. "We need to review it now. This whole change in policy needs review."

Tampa said his phone started ringing two weeks ago, shortly after Gulfport police chased a stolen car through St. Petersburg streets the evening of July 9. The 14-minute pursuit of 21-year-old Derrick Mims, a habitual traffic offender with a lengthy criminal record, ended when Mims crashed into a PSTA bus in St. Petersburg's Jordan Park neighborhood.

The bus then careened into an apartment building, sending several people to the hospital.

Tensions about pursuits were exacerbated after a second chase and crash July 23, when St. Petersburg police chased a group of suspected burglars for four minutes just after lunchtime.

The four suspects, who have since been linked to other crimes, crashed into three vehicles at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and Ninth Avenue N. Four people were injured, including a man who is still in critical condition at Bayfront Medical Center.

"I don't want to be critical on the police. They have a tough enough job," said Bill Holderman, whose brother, Kenneth Holderman, faces a long recovery. "But he's a good guy. He didn't deserve that."

Harmon would not discuss the pursuit or crash, which are still under investigation. He said his officers want to solve crimes and get the bad guys.

"It's very unnatural for them to just be able to let somebody go," Harmon said.

Gulfport police Chief Robert Vincent, who took heat from Foster after the earlier incident, agreed.

"No doubt pursuit is risky, but you have to weigh that against the consequences of not doing it," he said. "Oftentimes the suspects continue to drive dangerously even after police terminate the pursuit."

Gulfport determined its chase was justified. Vincent, who unlike St. Petersburg allows his officers to chase someone only suspected of stealing a car, said his agency plans to add a requirement for officers to consider their lack of familiarity with a neighborhood before starting future chases.

"I know police are trying to do a job," said St. Petersburg resident Carrie Norris, 37, who encountered the tail end of the July 23 crash on her way to work. "But at certain times of the day it's very busy out on the roads. I know once you see the bad guy you want to get 'em. At some point, you may just have to let it go."

Harmon said each pursuit is reviewed by his agency to determine whether it was justified based on factors such as time of day, traffic conditions and the threat to public safety.

"I don't think anybody would question police chasing a murderer," Harmon said. "Typically the judgment comes when you're chasing for property crimes. … That's the hard part, finding that balance."

Curran, who was opposed to loosening the chase policy when Foster floated the idea, said the July 23 crash "shook up" a lot of people.

Her concerns aren't just for the innocent citizens who may be caught up in a pursuit or crash. She also expressed worry for the police officers: "A red light on their car doesn't keep them safe."

Not everyone has such strong feelings about the issue.

Kevin Carlson's red Explorer was totaled during the July 23 crash. He said he remembers seeing the stolen, white Hyundai and police cars nearing the intersection, but didn't immediately realize it was a chase.

"The next thing I know my air bags were going off," said Carlson, 50, of Lutz. "I'm more angry with the guys in the white car. It's tough to vilify the police when they're trying to stop the crime."

Times staff writer Mark Puente and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

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