Was police decision to go after fugitive in attic the safest choice?

NO GETTING OVER THIS: St. Petersburg police Officer Joshua Hall wipes away tears after talking about Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz. He was one of six officers who gathered Wednesday to remember their comrades.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

NO GETTING OVER THIS: St. Petersburg police Officer Joshua Hall wipes away tears after talking about Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz. He was one of six officers who gathered Wednesday to remember their comrades.

A fugitive with a violent history is holed up in an attic with a gun. What's the next step for law enforcement?

Monday morning in St. Petersburg, the decision was made to go after the guy. In what police Chief Chuck Harmon called an ambush, two police officers were killed and a deputy U.S. marshal wounded.

Even as the community grieves, many are asking difficult and sensitive questions about the tragedy — questions echoed by veteran police officers and tactical experts:

Why didn't officers call in the SWAT team and a negotiator and wait? The decision to go into the attic was a brave one, but was it the best one?

"I would have backed out, sealed it up, nobody in, nobody out, and notified the SWAT team," said Jon Shane, a former supervisor on the Newark, N.J., police SWAT team. But, he acknowledged, "I'm looking at it from the comfort of my home 1,200 miles away."

St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt quickly dismissed outside criticism.

"I think it's very misleading for so-called experts to render an opinion without specific knowledge of the facts in this situation," he said.

St. Petersburg police and the U.S. Marshals Service have not said who decided to send officers in to apprehend Hydra Lacy Jr., 39, who also died in the confrontation. Harmon said only that officers routinely risk their lives to capture dangerous people.

The officers killed or wounded Monday have been described as dedicated and professional. Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, 39, who led the attempt to apprehend Lacy, was fatally shot, and Deputy U.S. Marshal Scott Ley, 45, was wounded. In the rescue effort that followed, Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger, 48, was killed.

Based on what's publicly known about the incident, several experts suggest there were safer alternatives to going in after Lacy in a tight crawl space.

Ron McCarthy, a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles City SWAT team, who has trained more than 30,000 officers, said he made many errors in his career and was thankful no one got killed as a result.

"But when you're told the suspect is in the attic and he's got a gun, it's a no-brainer," McCarthy said. "Call in the SWAT team. They have the pole cameras, ballistic shields, and they're regularly trained in these difficult physical circumstances."

McCarthy said the suspect's location in an attic made a waiting game by police preferable to an assault. Lacy's behavior also signaled his aggressiveness and desperation, he said.

"He's creating a confrontation," McCarthy said. "It's a no-escape situation, he's got a gun and he knows the police are there. You get a negotiator and . . . the SWAT team makes life uncomfortable by putting chemical agents in the attic. . . . There is no rush."

Proffitt disputed that hiding in an attic means a suspect is seeking a confrontation. "It's not uncommon for suspects to hide in an attic," he said.

Edward Mamet, a retired New York City police captain and police procedures expert, called the entry into the attic "reckless." He said the officers had many things against them: They had to climb a stepladder into the dark crawl space, leaving part of their bodies vulnerable. They didn't know how Lacy was armed, nor what sort of cover he had.

Shane, the former SWAT supervisor who now teaches police policies and practices at John Jay College, said some as yet unknown "precipitating event" may have led officers on the scene to react as they did.

"Maybe they heard a scurry and thought he was trying to escape," Shane said. "Maybe they wanted to confirm or dispel what (Lacy's) wife was saying."

The tragedy seemed eerily familiar to Andrew Yaffa. The lawyer represented the family of Todd Fatta, a Broward County deputy who was killed while executing an arrest warrant in August 2004. The suspect had a history of threatening police and a number of guns.

Fatta's family sued the Broward Sheriff's Office for not calling in the SWAT team to handle the warrant. In 2009, they got a $2 million settlement and the department made a rule allowing a deputy to call in the SWAT team without going through layers of approval once necessary, if certain criteria are met.

"The suspect has to be barricaded in a confined space, have a known violent history and weapons involved," Fatta's attorney said. "These criteria were clearly met in St. Petersburg.''

Proffitt said the watch commander of St. Petersburg's three patrol districts, usually a lieutenant, has authority to request the tactical team to respond to an escalating situation.

Several experts urge St. Petersburg to do a thorough and independent review of the shootings. Shane said Chief Harmon was right to say, immediately after the tragedy, that he wasn't going to second-guess his officers.

"He is the symbolic father figure for that organization, and his responsibility is to support the surviving family members, providing moral support for other officers who, on a daily basis, have to go out and do the very same thing."

But Shane said Harmon also has the responsibility to investigate what went wrong to try to prevent deaths in the future.

"There's always time for accountability, when they've regained their composure, to look at the incident . . . and say, 'Here's how we want to keep our remaining officers safe,' " he said.

But that investigation will be difficult since the house — the scene of the crime — was demolished the same day.

"I've never heard of such a thing," Shane said.

Proffitt acknowledged the demolition didn't help the investigation. "It hinders, to some degree, our forensics of the rubble," he said.

The decision to demolish was made by Mayor Bill Foster, not police, Proffitt said, but the chief agreed with it.

The department is still investigating Monday's events, Proffitt said, but the final report won't be ready for weeks. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office is reviewing police actions to determine if any laws were broken.

"Until an investigation is complete, we won't know all the facts. This week we're preparing for a funeral," Proffitt said, referring to the officers' service Friday. "That is our primary concern this week."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at khundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

Was police decision to go after fugitive in attic the safest choice? 01/26/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 8:17am]

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