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St. Petersburg mayor will switch to new chase policy, security cams

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster wants to arm the city's police force with two new weapons in the fight against crime: a broader high-speed chase policy and high-tech surveillance cameras.

One idea is concrete, giving officers more freedom to chase suspects. The other is conceptual, an idea the technologically inclined mayor thinks could one day extend the reach of the St. Petersburg Police Department.

The police unions have demanded a less restrictive chase policy for years. Currently, officers can pursue violent criminals but not the city's No. 1 crime problem: stolen vehicles. Police Chief Chuck Harmon considered such chases too dangerous.

The new policy isn't a radical departure, but it would allow officers to chase burglars and, under certain conditions, car thieves.

Union leaders say under the old policy, savvy car thieves and other minor criminals know they don't have to pull over for police.

"It's game on now," said St. Petersburg Sgt. Karl Lounge, who is vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Foster also kicked off debate about an idea he proposed during the campaign: targeting certain areas with security cameras.

While the chase policy will go into effect in 30 to 60 days, there's no time line for when cameras might start appearing.

There's a lot to look at — cost, legality and implementation — but the mayor wants the public to start thinking about the idea.

Together, the two proposals represent the most extensive changes in St. Petersburg's public safety policy in years.

"If we can use technology to further extend the officer's ability to see when a crime is being committed," Foster said, "then that would be great."

• • •

The mayor and police chief publicly unveiled those ideas at Wednesday's invitation-only community retreat to 100 members of the Police Department, city government and public.

In a bit of a reversal, the chief himself introduced the new chase policy.

For years, Harmon said chasing and arresting criminals who won't spend much time in jail — like car thieves — wasn't worth risking life or limb. But then he agreed to stay on as chief under a mayor who campaigned for a more aggressive policy.

"I don't think the mayor and I are trying to open up Pandora's box," Harmon said. "This gives the officers a little bit more leeway and keeps safety in mind."

The only change in the new pursuit policy would allow officers to chase anyone who commits a "forcible felony." That adds burglary to the list of crimes that can spark a high-speed chase.

Officers still could not chase stolen cars without further provocation. But they could chase anyone caught breaking into or stealing vehicles, or chase vehicles linked to a rash of thefts.

"I've been arguing for more latitude, especially on the midnight shift," said Sgt. Lounge. "I don't think you'll see a dramatic increase in pursuits, although it does give us more tools to catch and arrest criminals."

• • •

Opposition to the new policy started as soon as it was unveiled. Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran led the charge.

"I think we should value life," she said, "more than we value chasing teenagers who steal cars."

According to police statistics, St. Petersburg officers engaged in 76 police chases in the past five years. While 47 percent of them ended in arrest, 33 percent ended in crashes.

Curran also wasn't satisfied with what little time was set aside to discuss the policy.

She and fellow council member Wengay Newton called for more information and more debate.

"I want feedback, and I want input," Foster said. "If the council would like a presentation, I will meet with you. Quite frankly, if you want public hearings, go for it."

But the mayor also was firm that he alone will decide what the chase policy will be, telling the audience: "That's my call."

Curran's response afterward:

"If you're going to make a decision, make a decision," she said. "Don't go through the pretense of a discussion."

• • •

The mayor himself introduced the most dramatic security proposal the city has seen in years: installing remote-controlled surveillance cameras around St. Petersburg.

Foster envisioned cameras that would be portable, so they could be moved where needed; wireless, so they could be monitored from the laptop of a police cruiser; and focused on areas like crime "hot spots," areas of high-tourist traffic and city parks.

But much needs to be hashed out before they can become reality, he said. How much will they cost? Who will monitor them? What if someone objects to having them on his block?

"I want to get a sense of your comfort level with the use of new technology," Foster told the crowd.

The mayor added that the cameras won't be a panacea.

"There might be a false sense of security if they think there's an officer on the other side of that lens," Foster said. "This is just an additional tool to fighting crime in St. Petersburg."

St. Petersburg's New chase policy

Examples of what police can — and can't do — under the new chase policy:

• A string of burglaries are linked to a particular car. Officers spot a similar car in the same neighborhood. Police can chase because they suspect those inside of burglary.

• A convenience store owner reports a smash-and-grab theft — robbers break his windows, steal his goods and split. He gives police a description of the vehicle and the tag number. If police locate the vehicle, they can chase the car on charges of commercial burglary.

• A police cruiser pulls behind a suspicious vehicle and runs the tag number. A computer check reveals it's stolen. Even under the new policy, police cannot chase a stolen vehicle for that crime alone.

• Undercover police follow a car full of teens into a parking lot. They break into vehicles, ransacking them, then speed off. Officers can chase them on charges of auto burglary.

St. Petersburg mayor will switch to new chase policy, security cams 02/17/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 18, 2010 12:19am]
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