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St. Petersburg police chief proposes review of tactics, policies, equipment

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon is proposing a thorough review of police tactics, policies and equipment after the city lost three officers in the line of duty in 28 days.

The chief said that in the coming months he plans to bring together top law enforcement commanders, trainers and tactical experts from all over the Tampa Bay area to examine the two incidents that cost three St. Petersburg officers their lives.

"It's going to be a learning experience for us all," Harmon said. "I want to know what worked, and what didn't."

Everything will be up for discussion, the chief said, after St. Petersburg suffered its first officer casualties in 30 years. That includes two key issues leading up to those casualties:

Harmon said the panel will look at the attempt to arrest a fugitive hiding in an attic on Jan. 24. That's the day Hydra Lacy Jr. feigned surrender in the attic, police said, then fatally shot canine Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz and wounded a deputy U.S. marshal.

When a rescue team went in for the injured officers, Lacy fired down at officers through the ceiling, fatally wounding Sgt. Thomas Baitinger. Police had to tear down half the house so that a SWAT team could free Yaslowitz. Lacy was later found dead after more than 200 rounds were fired during the standoff.

The chief said he'll also ask the group to review his agency's bullet-resistant vest policy after Officer David Crawford was shot and killed Feb. 21, according to police, by 16-year-old Nicholas Lindsey.

Crawford suffered multiple gunshot wounds to the upper body, police said. He was not wearing his protective vest when he died.

St. Petersburg strongly encourages the use of vests, but only requires them in high-risk situations. The Tampa Police Department and sheriff's offices in Hills­borough and Pinellas counties have similar policies. Other local agencies have mandatory-wear policies.

The chief said his agency is still investigating why Crawford wasn't wearing his vest or whether it would have made a difference. Internal investigations are still looking into both incidents. But the vest policy should be reviewed nonetheless, the chief said.

"It did make us pause and ask the question: Do we have the right policy?" Harmon said. "We're going to be putting a task force together as soon as the investigations wrap up, and that's one of the questions we're going to challenge this group of experts and tactical folks with."

The extensive review the chief envisions won't take place until the department's internal investigations are done in both incidents, which is why it may take months before he convenes the group.

One issue that won't be discussed: the decision to quickly tear down what was left of the house where Lacy made his last stand Jan. 24. That was Mayor Bill Foster's decision, the chief said, not a police decision.

The chief said he's reaching out to local, state and federal agencies that aided the city during the Jan. 24 standoff in which Yaslowitz and Baitinger died. Those agencies also sent help again during a massive hunt for the teenager accused of killing Crawford on Feb. 21. The chief has already asked Tampa police Chief Jane Castor and Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats to let their agencies participate.

Harmon said he'll use the group's findings and recommendations to decide whether St. Petersburg needs to change any of the policies, procedures and tools that relate to police tactics and officer safety. He'll also share those findings with other agencies.

The discussions won't be open to the public, the chief said, because sensitive tactical and investigative techniques will be discussed. But Harmon said he may brief the media afterward on matters that can be made public.

He said a regional meeting makes sense because the entire region responded to help St. Petersburg in both incidents.

"It involves us all," Harmon said. "If anything happened in another city, I would be sending folks their way like they sent their folks to us."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg police chief proposes review of tactics, policies, equipment 03/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 9:56pm]
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