Monday, April 23, 2018
Public safety

St. Petersburg police chief tightens use of force policy

ST. PETERSBURG — Police officers will now face tougher standards in their use of deadly force.

In one of his last acts as police chief, Chuck Harmon on Tuesday made significant changes to the policy that dictates how and when officers are allowed to fire their weapons.

Officers now must be able to see who they are shooting at before firing, said Harmon, who also stiffened penalties for policy violators.

"It's reasonable to ask people to know what they're shooting at," Harmon told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. "We carry firearms on a daily basis. We are trained professionally. It's a big deal."

The changes are a direct response to one of several fatal officer-involved shootings this year.

The Sept. 7 death of Lelann Cooley fit the description of a typical "suicide-by-cop" scenario. Prosecutors, police and family members all agreed Cooley, 46, goaded police into shooting him after they showed up to his home for a noise complaint. Cooley armed himself, refused to follow orders and pointed a gun at officers.

Many were stunned then at Harmon's actions after an internal investigation into the shooting.

In a rare move, the chief handed down a split decision about the group of officers involved. Harmon cleared four officers but decided two were unjustified in their use of deadly force, a ruling that went against state prosecutors' conclusions.

Explaining his decision, Harmon said that Cooley presented a real threat but that Officers Christopher Turbee, 37, and John Phifer, 34, did not actually see that threat and joined in only after hearing their fellow officers' shots.

Last month, Harmon gave both men an employee notice, a form of written, formal discipline that stays in an officer's personnel file. Within weeks, police union lawyers were appealing the decision to the city.

Last week, the officers got a partial victory.

Days after city labor officials heard Phifer's appeal, his attorney Ken Afienko got word Harmon was downgrading the discipline to a memorandum of counseling, which is essentially informal training.

Then Afienko, who represents the Fraternal Order of Police, heard of the looming policy changes.

"From the union perspective, we are very concerned with any policy that dictates an officer's actions on high-stress calls that are so dynamic in nature," he said Tuesday. "I know of no agency in this area that has a similar policy."

Use of force policies at other county agencies, including the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Clearwater Police Department, don't specifically require target acquisition.

Harmon said target acquisition is part of officer training. The city's policy now clearly says that unless officers are under fire, they "will ascertain the target before discharging their firearm."

In addition to the target acquisition clause, Harmon also put stiffer penalties in place for those who violate the use of force policy. Now, any officer found guilty of a firearms-related violation will, at minimum, receive an employee notice. That includes acts like losing a gun or damaging it through negligence, Harmon said.

When the chief first disciplined Turbee, who has 14 years with the department, and Phifer, who has 10 years with department, Afienko said he was concerned about the message it sent to officers. Harmon's policy changes also concern him.

"There may be times when you're going to have to shoot and not actually see the target," he said. "Not all shootings are you going to have an ideal circumstance. It just doesn't happen."

He cited the Hydra Lacy case, which ended in the deaths of two police officers in 2011, as an example. Officers fired hundreds of rounds at Lacy, whom they could not see as he fired down at them from an attic.

Harmon said he understands exceptions will occur. The Lacy case would be one, he said.

The chief, who retires in January, said he has not reversed his opinion that Turbee and Phifer were not justified in the Cooley shooting.

"When I looked at the violation we had, nothing in our policy said you should have target acquisition when you shot," he said. "I took this as an opportunity to strengthen the policy."

The changes are effective immediately.

"It needed to be done," Harmon said. "And I think it'll make it easier for the next chief to enforce."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow her on Twitter @cornandpotatoes.

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