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Tampa Bay experts examine St. Petersburg police deaths

ST. PETERSBURG — More than 80 police commanders, trainers and tactical experts from across the Tampa Bay area met Thursday to review the recent deaths of three St. Petersburg officers in the line of duty.

The result was more than a dozen recommended changes in training, tactics and equipment that could help officers be better prepared for future confrontations.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon said the panel agreed that the many officers who were involved in two deadly encounters this year — including those who lost their lives — did most everything right.

That includes K-9 Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, who was fatally wounded Jan. 24 trying to arrest a fugitive hiding in an attic and Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger, who was fatally wounded trying to rescue him.

Less than a month later on Feb. 21, Officer David S. Crawford was fatally shot when he tried to question a teen prowler downtown.

"I think we did a lot of things right," Harmon said. "Probably more than I thought we would have."

He characterized the recommendations as "tweaks" rather than major shifts in policy, but would not reveal most of them because they involve confidential police tactics.

"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."

But what about Crawford, who was shot in the upper torso but was not wearing his bullet-resistant vest at the time? St. Petersburg, like many agencies in Tampa Bay, does not require its officers to wear vests except in "high-risk" situations.

A vest "possibly" would have helped Crawford survive the encounter, Harmon said. "But I'm not saying for sure that it would or wouldn't have."

The department didn't disclose why Crawford was not wearing his vest when he was killed. It didn't come up in the investigation, the chief said.

Harmon said St. Petersburg isn't likely to change its vest policy. Instead, he'll look at giving officers more options to encourage their use.

The panel talked about giving officers more options for protecting themselves, like bullet-resistant vests that can be worn outside their uniforms (so officers can take them on and off as needed) and equipping more officers with more ballistic shields (which were used in the Jan. 24 incident.)

Another suggestion directly related to the Jan. 24 incident is giving officers better equipment to search attics, such as ladders and telescoping mirrors.

But Harmon said he won't order his officers not to go into attics — or any other place — when looking for a suspect.

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

The group also talked about providing more resources for officers to deal with the stress and grief of losing a colleague.

He said the review, which included agencies from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and the federal government, will change the way the St. Petersburg Police Department conducts certain operations.

But those tweaks won't be made until the department gets input from the rank-and-file, who will actually have to implement any changes.

Harmon, though, kept most of the suggestions to himself, citing exemptions in public records law that keep certain police tactics and techniques confidential.

"I think it was critical," he said of the review. "I can talk about things we learned from my own people. But there were a lot of eyes and ears and experts who were at the scenes who had a lot of information.

"It would not have been smart on my part not to listen to what they had to say."

Tampa Bay experts examine St. Petersburg police deaths 06/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2011 5:24pm]
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