Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Public safety

St. Petersburg police chief defends recent high-speed chases

ST. PETERSBURG — After a recent pair of high-speed chases resulted in injuries to bystanders, police Chief Chuck Harmon defended his officers at a City Council meeting Thursday.

Harmon assured council members that officers are not chasing vehicles daily, only when criminals commit forcible felonies such as burglaries, kidnappings and other violent crimes.

"I have been in law enforcement for over 30 years," he said. "This has always been a tough choice for us."

After the recent crashes — which were two weeks apart — police critics say they'd be more comfortable if officers backed off from chases altogether. The first chase, while mostly on St. Petersburg streets, involved the Gulfport Police Department.

This year, St. Petersburg police have recorded 16 chases. Of those, 11 were ruled justified. Five are pending review, Harmon said.

Two years ago, a newly elected Mayor Bill Foster prodded the department to loosen its restrictive chase policy as a way to crack down on crime. The year that change went into effect, 2010, there were 16 police pursuits in the city, according to department data.

A year later, that number more than doubled to 34.

After the most recent chases, council members asked Harmon for the update he gave Thursday.

Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran said Harmon hadn't wanted to change the policy in 2010, saying: "You really weren't receptive. The mayor changed it."

Council member Jeff Danner asked Harmon if he wanted the policy change to remain in place.

"I think the policy is fine," Harmon responded.

Foster said he wanted the policy changed in 2010 so city guidelines matched others in Tampa Bay and across Florida. The power to change the policy rests with Harmon, the mayor told the council.

"I never tell him how to do his job," Foster said.

Chases represent a small part of the 16,000 vehicles stopped every year in St. Petersburg, Harmon said, noting that "pursuits are an issue across the country."

Council member Wengay Newton pressed Harmon about whether chases were occurring that weren't reported by officers. He asked about an alleged incident where a resident jumped out of the way to avoid being struck by a police car in a chase.

Harmon disagreed with Newton, saying: "That's not what I am being told. It's not accurate."

Council member Steve Kornell took issue with residents blaming police for chasing suspects.

"Crime is the problem," he said. "Blaming our police … is just so inaccurate."

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