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St. Petersburg police's use of Stop Sticks doesn't ensure safe end to chase

ST. PETERSBURG — It was a bad breakup: a stolen pickup, two drive-by shootings and an 18-year-old girl shot in the leg.

Undercover officers tracked down the truck, but it sped away. They later found it in an apartment complex parking lot and waited. Two men got in. The hidden officers were too far away to stop them. The suspects could be armed and ready to flee again.

It had high-speed chase written all over it. So officers tried a tactic that the chief of police once deemed too dangerous: They blew out the truck's tires.

An officer at the exit yanked on a cord, pulling 9 feet of spikes into the moving truck's path.

The result: two shredded tires and two arrests.

That Aug. 17 stop marked the first time St. Petersburg police used Stop Sticks, hollow tubes lined with Teflon-coated barbs that can puncture any tire.

The device prevented that pursuit. But they usually end them.

Tire-deflation devices only work if police can get them in front of a fleeing vehicle.

And even then, as a chase Friday night showed, they are not foolproof. St. Petersburg police deployed spikes in front of a car pursued by Manatee County deputies. It blew past the device, however, and didn't stop until after it hit another car and killed the driver.

Stop Sticks come with a risk, too. Officers have lost their lives using them. That's why police Chief Chuck Harmon had long resisted them.

But when Mayor Bill Foster took office this year, he was open to ideas the chief wasn't. Now, the city's officers have a tool that other Tampa Bay agencies started using in the mid 1990s.

"I still have some concerns," Harmon said. "My officers are going to be out there deploying these things in front of fast-moving vehicles. There's still a safety aspect as far as I'm concerned.

"But I think by using policy and training, we've done the best job we can to prepare officers and minimize those risks."

• • •

The decision to allow officers to use Stop Sticks was rooted in the new chase policy.

The old high-speed chase policy allowed them to pursue only those accused of violent crimes — and only if it could be done safely. The unions complained that the policy emboldened petty criminals. Harmon argued that such chases weren't worth the risk to the public.

On the campaign trail last year, Foster promised to revisit that decision. The police union endorsed and supported his candidacy. His thinking was in line with theirs: For years, they wanted officers to have more freedom to chase a suspect — and the means to end that chase.

Harmon stayed on as chief, so he acceded to the new mayor's wishes. But he also had a hand in setting limits on those policies.

In February, the pair announced that officers could now chase for "forcible felony" crimes, adding burglary, theft or a rash of thefts to the list of pursuit-worthy crimes.

But the new policy could (but hasn't yet) resulted in more high-speed pursuits, the chief said.

The next logical step, Harmon said, was to arm officers with tire-deflation devices — devices the mayor already wanted.

"I wouldn't have bought them if I didn't support them," Foster said. "Nobody likes pursuits. The community doesn't like them. I don't like them. But it's a necessary evil.

"It's important to get the bad guy, but it's also important to protect the public from pursuits that go on longer than they should."

St. Petersburg Detective Mark Marland, president of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, credited the mayor with helping bring about changes the police unions have long demanded: same-sex benefits for domestic partners; allowing officers to take their police cars home 40 miles outside the city (the county line was the old limit); and more leeway to pursue suspects, then end those pursuits.

"We've been waiting years for those things," he said.

The next item on the unions' wish list: the "PIT maneuver," also known as the precision or pursuit immobilization technique, also used to end pursuits — but much more dramatically.

That's when a police car's front quarter-panel, or fender, is used to tap the rear side of a fleeing vehicle to spin it off the road.

St. Petersburg doesn't allow it because it's risky to pull off in a densely populated urban environment. While the unions want it, they realize it requires a lot more training and logistics.

"The next tool in the belt is 'PITing,' " Marland said. "But we know it's a lot more complicated than Stop Sticks."

• • •

There are several kinds of tire-deflation devices. Stop Sticks are used by the Florida Highway Patrol, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and police agencies in Clearwater, Pinellas Park, Tarpon Springs and, now, St. Petersburg.

Stop Sticks consist of three 3-foot tubes linked together and tucked inside a black sleeve. An officer throws the device on the other side of the road, then uses a reel to pull it back across the street.

The tubes are triangular, so they always land right. Each tube contains 36 hollow quills. When a tire passes over the device, the hollow barbs break off into the tire. They quickly deflate the tires but don't destroy them, reducing the risk of a crash. The device is billed to work on run-flat and self-sealing tires.

In May, the City Council agreed to spend $140,000 from the forfeiture fund to buy 380 Stop Sticks. The five-year contract with StopTech Ltd. calls for the Ohio company to replace the tubes that are used.

FHP troopers and Pinellas deputies started using the devices in 1996. Clearwater and Pinellas Park got them in 1998. Hillsborough and Pasco sheriff's offices also use them.

Tampa police use a similar device, called a Stinger Spike System, a grid of spikes that stretches accordion-style across a road.

Harmon, the St. Petersburg police chief since 2001, thought the Stop Sticks were too risky.

"In most of the studies that I've seen, officers can get hurt trying to deploy the devices," he said. "You're putting them in front of a fast-moving, 4,000-pound missile driven by someone trying to get away, who's driving very erratically."

In 2007, two Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies were killed trying to remove them. They were hit by a fellow deputy chasing a stolen vehicle. It was at night, on a rural road in the Everglades. The device they used had no lanyard to pull on.

That same year, a California Highway Patrol officer was killed while trying to remove the device. In 2005, it was an Arkansas trooper. In 2003, it was two in Tennessee and one in Iowa.

• • •

St. Petersburg Sgt. Tim Brockman trained the department's officers in the new device in July. The most important lesson: "Stay out of harm's way," he said. "Utilize cover, stay out of the street. That's what we're focused on most in our training."

St. Petersburg's rules for using the device are similar to the restrictions on high-speed chases: It depends on road, lighting and weather conditions, time of day and part of town; officers must stay in constant radio contact; and a supervisor must give the order.

Brockman also taught his trainees another safety tactic: "We're teaching officers to deploy this from behind cover," he said, "so if the vehicle tries to do something to avoid the spikes, you're not out in the open where they can hit you."

Officers must also quickly reel in the device before a pursuing police car hits it. Still, friendly fire will happen, Brockman said.

"It's another tool to end a pursuit efficiently and safely, which is the goal," Foster said.

That's because every chase is fraught with danger. On Friday night, St. Petersburg police used the device a second time to try to end a high-speed pursuit.

Manatee deputies chased a suspect north over the Sunshine Skyway bridge and into the city. A St. Petersburg officer deployed the spikes on an Interstate 275 exit.

The left tires appeared to clip the device, police said, but it's unclear whether the suspect didn't hit enough barbs or evaded the device. Either way, he kept going.

The chase ended minutes later when the speeding suspect ran a red light and crashed into another car, police said, killing Gary Lane Smith, 56, of St. Petersburg.

Fast facts

See Stop Sticks in action

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon would not allow the St. Petersburg Times to observe or photograph a demonstration. But the manufacturer, StopTech Ltd., posted a demonstration video at www.stopstick.com.

St. Petersburg police's use of Stop Sticks doesn't ensure safe end to chase 09/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 12:13am]
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