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Poll shows public divided over police car chases

It has always been one of the most contentious public safety debates in Tampa Bay: Should police be allowed to chase nonviolent criminals? Is chasing a stolen car worth risking lives?

In Hillsborough County, officers have more leeway to chase those criminals. Many of their Pinellas brethren do not.

According to a recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll, 44 percent of Hillsborough and Pinellas residents support allowing officers to chase those suspected of nonviolent crimes.

But 43 percent oppose it, with 14 percent undecided. The margin of error: 4 percentage points.

Jim Chambers, 74, of Tampa, supports pursuing car thieves.

"I think they absolutely should. If someone steals your car you want them to chase them."

But Chambers has reservations about chasing teens: "If it's someone under the age of 18, then I would hope they wouldn't give chase. They're going to get hurt because they're not good drivers."

All high-speed pursuits are governed by rules. Supervisors monitor the chases, and the officers must constantly weigh street conditions, visibility and traffic.

The Tampa Police Department says it does everything it can to avoid a pursuit before one starts, like boxing in a vehicle or using its helicopter to track suspects.

But TPD also has one of the more aggressive chase policies in Tampa Bay, allowing officers to chase burglars and car thieves.

"One auto theft suspect can be a walking crime wave," said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. "They can go out and victimize dozens of businesses, homes or cars."

The agency said its aggressive chase policy is just one of the tools it used to knock down the city's crime rate. Vehicle thefts in Tampa plummeted by 80 percent from 2002 to 2009.

The St. Petersburg Police Department had one of the most restrictive chase policies until this year, when Mayor Bill Foster acceded to union demands and gave officers more leeway.

A stolen car alone can't trigger a chase. But now St. Petersburg officers can chase burglars and serial thieves. The new policy has led to only 12 chases this year compared to 20 in 2009.

"I don't know if it's had a dramatic impact," Foster said. "I will say that it's giving the bad guys some pause as to whether or not to try and flee the police."

But every pursuit has its risks. St. Petersburg resident Gary Lane Smith, 56, was killed in a Sept. 3 collision with a car thief, authorities said. A Manatee County deputy chased the thief over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and into the city just before the crash.

That's why chasing car thieves is too risky to Martrece Wilson, 52, of Tampa.

"If they feel they can get the upper hand before the chase gets out of hand, then do so," she said. "But after two blocks then back off. You can cause more problems and harm just by chasing them."

About the poll

The St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9 sponsored a phone poll of 600 randomly selected adults in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The poll was conducted Dec. 8-14 and included 300 people in each county. The margin of error was 4 percentage points overall but increased to 5.7 for individual county responses. The poll was conducted by American Directions Group, a national polling firm based in Washington, D.C., with offices in Lakeland.

Poll shows public divided over police car chases 12/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 28, 2010 11:01pm]
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