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Questions follow two cases of St. Petersburg police shooting into cars

At a protest Friday in St. Petersburg, Julie Hovanyecz of Gulfport holds a sign referring to an April police shooting.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

At a protest Friday in St. Petersburg, Julie Hovanyecz of Gulfport holds a sign referring to an April police shooting.

ST. PETERSBURG — For years, the mandate to police officers about shooting into moving cars has been this: Don't.

And for the most part, such occurrences are rare. Yet already twice this year, police officers have done exactly that.

In both cases, authorities said the people were fleeing arrest and had first threatened the officers — who were on foot — with their vehicles.

In March, police said a man with two passengers in his car accelerated toward a group of officers who arrived with a search warrant. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a teen with a passenger in a stolen car did the same thing. People in the cars were injured each time.

The police union says the officers were just doing what they had to in an extremely vulnerable position.

But some residents and St. Petersburg officials said it is clear officers violated the department's own policy, which says "officers shall not fire at a moving vehicle or any occupant of a moving vehicle."

The policy does spell out some exceptions, but they only apply if someone in the car is threatening officers with a gun. And even then, firing into a car is to be a last resort.

"It's pretty self-explanatory as to what the expectations are," police Chief Chuck Harmon said. "A bullet is not going to stop a 4,000-pound car. … There may have been no alternatives, though, and I'll have to consider that."

He will have the final say over whether officers broke the department's policy and, if so, what punishment they should face. The internal investigations are expected to be completed in the next few weeks.

Many law enforcement agencies restrict their officers from firing at moving vehicles. It's a matter of officer safety, Harmon said. But unlike many other agencies in the Tampa Bay area, St. Petersburg's policy allows officers to fire at a moving vehicle if someone inside is threatening them with a firearm.

That specificity worries St. Petersburg police Detective Mark Marland, head of the police union.

"The policy's terrible," he told the Tampa Bay Times. "There should be some flexibility. Every once in a while you're going to end up in a situation of disadvantage."

In both recent cases, no one in the car had a gun.

The first shooting occurred about 7:30 p.m. March 8 as officers were using a search warrant to go into a suspected drug house at 3810 18th Ave. S. Marques Rowe, 21, got into a rented white Toyota Camry with two passengers.

One police affidavit says Rowe backed up "while Officer Colt Smith was behind the vehicle, in clear sight." It says Smith "had to push off the vehicle in order to propel himself out of the way."

Three officers fired at the car, two with handguns, one with an AR-15. Police chased the Toyota to an alley near 37th Street and 13th Avenue S.

Police arrested Rowe on six counts of attempted murder, among other charges, but the charges were later downgraded and Rowe was released on bail.

Rowe's attorney, Ron Smith, had a different take on that night. "I would say the cops went in there ill prepared, and when somebody was driving away, I think they overreacted and they certainly used excessive force. I don't think there's any cops that were threatened."

He said he spoke to several witnesses in the neighborhood who said Rowe wasn't driving toward the officers. "They were using that to justify their shooting into the car," Smith said. "I mean, it was like a shooting gallery down there."

In the April 15 case, police spotted two teens inside a stolen white Nissan parked in an alley behind 1831 26th St. S. As officers got closer to the car, which was backed in, police said, 19-year-old Shaquille Francios Sweat accelerated toward Officers Richard Bishop, 30, and Brandon Bill, 31. Both officers drew their guns and fired into the car as it came toward them. Bill was struck slightly, but did not suffer a major injury.

As the car moved toward a nearby alley, Officer George Graves, 29, also fired at the car.

Sweat, who was struck in the arm, bailed from the car and ran, police said. His passenger, Tyeisha Uneek Long, 15, was struck in the shoulder.

City Council member Leslie Curran said she is troubled by both shootings, noting that the April one happened not far from Perkins Elementary. She wondered why the officers were in front of the car in the first place.

A Police Department policy also addresses that, instructing officers not to put themselves in harm's way.

"I just think we were putting citizens at risk unnecessarily," Curran said. "If we're not following the policies, then something needs to be done. I think there's a lot of concern out in the community."

Council Chairman Karl Nurse said he understands why an officer might fire if someone is trying to run him over, "but they're not supposed to put themselves in that position.

"I would expect in both of those cases they would say the officers were wrong, they put themselves in danger."

At a protest in front of the St. Petersburg Police Department on Friday, Chimurenga Waller of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement said he was highly skeptical when he heard the police explanation in the recent cases. "I heard the same story I heard in 1996," he said, referring to the case of TyRon Lewis, who was shot by a St. Petersburg officer who said Lewis drove the car toward him.

Harmon said he could not comment specifically on the two cases because they are active investigations. The officers in the first shooting are back on duty. The officers from the second shooting are on administrative duty pending the review, he said.

"It's the nature of an officer to want to get a bad guy," Harmon said. "All of us want to do that, but there has to be an evaluation between the need to catch the bad guy and your techniques to get him."

Marland, of the police union, said the fact that shootings like these don't happen often — there have been three in the last three years — shows that officers are doing a good job.

Sometimes though, officers do find themselves in dangerous situations, he said.

"The snap of a finger changes the dynamic of a situation," he said. "If they're willing to run down a cop. When is it going to stop? That vehicle can do a lot of damage. It's a 5,000-pound bullet. … Unfortunately, doing police work is not cut-and-dry."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232.

Questions follow two cases of St. Petersburg police shooting into cars 05/04/13 [Last modified: Saturday, May 4, 2013 8:40pm]

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