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St. Petersburg officers gearing up for new safety protection

ST. PETERSBURG — Spurred by the loss of three officers in the line of duty, the St. Petersburg Police Department is looking to significantly upgrade its arsenal.

The proposed hardware includes bullet-resistant vests that can be worn over officers' uniforms, gun-mounted flashlights, and lighter, easier-to-carry ballistic shields.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon wants to spend six figures to re-equip the force. Department officials could not provide a more exact cost because they say the list isn't finalized yet.

The money will come from the department's $1 million forfeiture fund — money confiscated from criminals — but Harmon will need the City Council's approval.

"This is huge," said Sgt. Karl Lounge, who won the medal of valor for his actions during the Jan. 24 gunbattle with a fugitive that cost canine unit Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz and Sgt. Tom Baitinger their lives.

"You don't need this equipment on a normal, everyday basis," he said. "But when you do need it, it's life and death."

The biggest change would be to allow officers to wear bullet-resistant vests over their dress uniforms. Currently, officers have to decide as they dress for work whether to wear their vest underneath — or not.

Officer David S. Crawford was not wearing his vest Feb. 21 when police say he was shot and killed as he tried to question a teen prowling suspect.

Like most Tampa Bay agencies, St. Petersburg requires only that vests be worn in high-risk situations. It's voluntary otherwise.

The department won't change its voluntary vest policy. But Harmon does hope that giving officers the option of putting vests over their uniforms will encourage more use.

The flexibility could address the No. 1 reason officers say they don't wear vests: They're too stifling in Florida's heat and humidity.

Outer vests will allow officers to direct traffic in the afternoon heat, then wear their vests on patrol at night. To stay cool, officers could drive with the side flaps open until they get an emergency call.

Officers in specialized units like canine already wear their vests on the outside, which they say is more comfortable.

"Not only does it give an option for more people to wear it," Lounge said, "but for those of us who wear our vests all the time, it gives you more comfort and flexibility."

After Crawford was shot in February, hundreds of officers searched for his shooter throughout the night.

Officer Patrick McGovern, a SWAT officer who also won the medal of valor for his actions on Jan. 24, remembers watching officers scrambling down steep slopes with a gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other during the manhunt.

"If they slip on that embankment, they're going to lose their weapon or lose their flashlight," he said.

The proposed fix: equip the force with lights mounted beneath their .40-caliber Glock pistols.

Officer Robert Lord, who works in research and planning, dismissed criticism that the lights can turn the officers into targets.

"I still have to hold my flashlight, whether it's here or it's on my weapon," Lord said. "Your free hand is a tactical advantage."

After Yaslowitz was shot and a deputy U.S. marshal was wounded on Jan. 24, officers rushed into the gunman's home to rescue the wounded.

Baitinger was one of those rescuers. He was carrying a ballistic shield when he, too, was fatally shot.

The shield he carried was heavy, about 18 pounds, and in short supply, though officials wouldn't disclose exactly how many they have. The department wants to buy 40 to 50 lighter shields (about 12 pounds each) that would be easier to carry while under fire.

They also want them modified with arm cutouts on the sides that would help officers raise and aim their sidearms from behind the shields.

The equipment requests are the result of a tactical review the chief held in June. He invited trainers and experts from across the Tampa Bay area to critique St. Petersburg's equipment, tactics and training after the officers' deaths.

Then it was Maj. Melanie Bevan's job to get input from St. Petersburg's 536 officers.

"The chief wanted to know from the rank and file what they think," she said. "It's something we've never done before."

Detective Mark Marland, president of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, said the unions, along with most of the rank-and-file officers, want the new hardware.

"The union appreciates that (the chief) actually took the time to get input from officers," Marland said. "That has not been common practice in the past."

Under state law, the mayor and City Council have to approve using forfeiture money. The police proposal should be finished in the next 30 days and its approval shouldn't be a problem, Mayor Bill Foster said.

"If my chief says they are necessary for the protection of my citizens and officers," Foster said, "than I am all for it."

St. Petersburg officers gearing up for new safety protection 08/13/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 13, 2011 9:18pm]
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