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St. Petersburg police review fatal officer shootings, but don't reveal much

ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay's top police commanders, trainers and tactical experts convened a summit Thursday to examine the deaths of three St. Petersburg officers killed in the line of duty this year.

They recommended dozens of changes in policies, tactics and gear that could help better prepare and better equip officers for future confrontations.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon said the discussion spanned a gamut of topics: Should the city force its officers to wear bullet-resistant vests? How can they better coordinate and share resources with other agencies in a crisis? How should they help officers cope with stress and grief?

But he wouldn't reveal most of the deliberations, citing an exemption in public records law for police tactics.

Harmon said he would let his officers weigh in on the recommended changes before he decides which ones to make. Then, he said, he will reveal them to the public.

Some things won't change, Harmon said. He won't order his officers not to go into attics — or any other place — looking for a suspect.

Canine Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz was killed on Jan. 24 while trying to arrest fugitive Hydra Lacy Jr., who was hiding in an attic. Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger was killed trying to rescue Yaslowitz.

"I'm not going to outlaw places officers can search," the chief said.

Nor does Harmon foresee the city forcing officers to wear bullet-resistant vests. Current policy requires them only in "high-risk" situations — a policy shared by Tampa Bay's largest police agencies.

Officer David S. Crawford was not wearing his vest when he was fatally shot in the chest Feb. 21 when he stopped to question a prowling suspect.

The lack of details about Thursday's discussions concerned City Council member Steve Kornell — as did two topics that were not addressed in Thursday's review: Why wasn't Crawford wearing his vest? And what about Mayor Bill Foster's decision to quickly raze the house where the Jan. 24 gunbattle took place?

Harmon said the investigation didn't address Crawford's reason for not wearing his vest.

The St. Petersburg police chief also made it clear before the review that Foster's decision wouldn't be scrutinized because it wasn't made by police commanders.

"I'm deeply concerned that the vest question wasn't even asked," Kornell said. "That doesn't sound like a thorough review to me. I'd like to raise those two questions at a council meeting."

Harmon said he convened the panel to allow outside agencies to examine the city's deadly shootings.

Tampa also has lost three officers in recent years: Mike Roberts, David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab.

Tampa Assistant Chief Marc Hamlin said his agency saw no need for an outside review in those cases.

"We critiqued ourselves," Hamlin said.

Harmon said the panel agreed that the officers involved in both deadly encounters this year — including those who lost their lives — did most everything right.

But that should not satisfy anyone, the chief said.

"The question we asked ourselves was, 'Can we do anything to help their chances of survival?' " he said.

One issue that has drawn scrutiny was the officers' decision to search the attic that Jan. 24 morning before the SWAT team arrived.

Whether officers go up into an attic themselves or wait for a SWAT team to do it is a decision that needs to be made at the scene, said Pinellas sheriff's Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri, not by executive fiat.

"They're professionals, they're well trained," said Gualtieri, who was on the panel. "You have to have confidence in their decisionmaking."

As for the vest policy, Harmon said he doesn't favor a mandatory-wear policy.

Proponents of the voluntary policy argue that Florida's heat and humidity can make the vests unbearable, and not every duty requires them.

But Harmon wants to give his officers more options to encourage their use.

One option would be to give officers a vest they can wear over their dress uniforms, so they can quickly get in and out of them as needed. Special police units like canine already do that, but they wear more casual uniforms like fatigues and polos.

Traditionally, American law enforcement tries to avoid a militaristic look by wearing their vests beneath their dress uniforms.

But overseas, officers often wear their vests on top of their uniforms. It's an option the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office already allows.

Was there anything discussed Thursday that could have prevented the deaths of the three officers?

"There is nothing that makes me think if we had done this or that, things would be different," Harmon said. "In St. Petersburg, the two individuals who took the officers' lives made that choice to do that.

"I don't know how we would have prevented them."

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg police review fatal officer shootings, but don't reveal much 06/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 12:14am]
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