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St. Petersburg police go over chief's head on pursuit policy

ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association sent a letter to Mayor Rick Baker on Wednesday urging him to take proactive measures to combat violent crime in the city.

But police Chief Chuck Harmon said the police union is misinformed and that there's no need to act on its No. 1 request: change the pursuit policy.

"I am saddened that I must address you at such an unfortunate time for our city … after having two of our St. Petersburg Police Officers severely shot in less than a year's time," wrote executive director Michael I. Krohn.

Criminals are getting more brazen, the letter said, because they don't fear "repercussion from the Judicial System."

In the past two months, five shopkeepers and one officer have been shot and wounded in a string of robberies that has left many saying the city feels unsafe.

Krohn urged the mayor to reconsider department policies, specifically the one that says when police can pursue a suspect vehicle and when they cannot.

"As you are aware, criminal offenders steal vehicles to be used to commit other violent criminal acts (i.e. "get away cars,")" the letter says, "but these St. Petersburg criminals know that if spotted by SPPD officers, they cannot be pursued for just stealing a car."

That, Krohn wrote, results in a "you can't do anything to me" attitude, which is why "violent crime is on the rise."

Policy says officers can pursue vehicles only if they think the driver has committed a violent felony, or if allowing the suspect to escape would endanger the public. Officers can break off the pursuit if they believe the chase is too dangerous to continue.

The chief said the union is wrong on two counts:

First, statistics show violent crime was down 12 percent in 2008 compared with 2007, though crimes such as robbery rose.

Second, the chief said that in his experience, few people steal cars to commit violent crimes.

Union officials did not return calls for comment Thursday.

The incident that precipitated the letter was Monday night's shooting of an undercover officer. The chief noted that the suspect rode a bike. But if he had been in a vehicle, the policy would have allowed officers to pursue him.

The policy is there for a reason, Harmon said: "We've made a conscious decision not to put innocent lives at risk, the officer's life, or even the suspect's life."

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

St. Petersburg police go over chief's head on pursuit policy 01/29/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 5:32pm]
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