LARGO — Citing a recent uptick in pursuits, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Monday that he is tightening the agency's pursuit policy.
"We have to make sure that what we do is the right thing and is justified under the right circumstances," he said. "When we engage in pursuits, it is about life and death situations."
The prior policy, which was in place for about a decade, allowed deputies to start a vehicle chase if there was "imminent danger to the public."
Under the new policy, effective immediately, deputies can start a vehicle pursuit only if the suspect committed a forcible felony and is an "imminent and/or continuous threat" to the public, or if the person is engaged in "extremely dangerous driving," according to the revised general order.
Forcible felonies include crimes like murder, kidnapping, sexual battery and home invasion robbery.
There are exceptions in the new policy: Deputies may not initiate a chase for the forcible felonies of unarmed burglary, arson that resulted only in property damage and aggravated assault without a firearm or weapon.
They also may not pursue a stolen car.
"I don't think that we were pursuing for the right crimes," the sheriff said. A burglary, he said, "isn't worth somebody's life."
The changes come after Gualtieri said he noticed an increase in pursuits. In 2012, deputies were involved in 134 pursuits, a 74 percent increase since 2010, when there were 77.
Of the 134 pursuits, 15 were initiated because of a stolen vehicle and 98 others were due to traffic offenses. Seven pursuits were not in compliance with the policy at the time.
Some pursuits resulted in disciplinary action. Last year, deputies Joshua Jones and Jose Camacho received suspensions related to a high-speed chase in October 2012. The driver was suspected of conducting a drug transaction, internal affairs records show. During the 9-mile chase that spanned from Park Boulevard to Haines Road and reached speeds of up to 110 mph, the suspect crashed into the front bumper of a Saturn, but the driver was not hurt. The suspect was not apprehended, according to records.
Through the years, some pursuits had fatal outcomes. In July 2011, Stacy Lynn Naples, who was being chased by deputies on 34th Street in St. Petersburg after conducting a drug deal, rammed another vehicle, killing 50-year-old driver Richard Trompke. The Sheriff's Office said at the time the chase was justified because a deputy had to jump out of Naples' path.
"I think some were pushing the envelope a little bit," Gualtieri said. "I think we had a policy that was very loose, that we needed to bring those bookends in a little bit."
Since last year, Gualtieri has met with staff, from supervisors to road deputies, to discuss the policy changes. Pursuit totals started to drop, with 61 in 2013.
Discipline for violating the Sheriff's Office pursuit policy ranges from a five-day suspension to being fired.
In January, the St. Petersburg Police Department also tightened its chase guidelines. It now allows a pursuit only if an officer believes the suspect has committed a violent felony, which is defined in the policy as a "violent act or when there is reasonable cause to believe that serious physical injury or death might be inflicted upon another person." The previous policy had allowed pursuits for forcible felonies, which included burglary.
At the Clearwater Police Department, the third largest law enforcement agency in Pinellas County, an officer can begin a pursuit if a suspect committed or tried to commit a violent felony and the "immediate danger" of the pursuit to the public is less than the danger created if the suspect remains at large.
Contact Laura C. Morel at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.