Two St. Petersburg police officers who were killed in a shootout with a felon who had vowed not to return to prison will be forever honored for their sacrifice. But two weeks after the deadly confrontation that shook the city, there are lingering questions about how the episode unraveled. A thorough public accounting will be an important step in providing answers to a concerned community and ensuring the safety of police officers who find themselves in similar situations.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, the St. Petersburg police and the U.S. marshal are conducting parallel investigations into the Jan. 24 gunbattle in which police Sgt. Tom Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz were killed and a deputy U.S. marshal was wounded. Hydra Lacy Jr., who was wanted on an arrest warrant and was hiding in the attic of a house on 28th Avenue S, also was killed. Hundreds of rounds of gunfire were exchanged, and hours went by before Lacy's body was removed as the house was dismantled around him.
There is no crime scene left for outside criminal experts to review, and there are reasonable questions about how the episode unfolded. An honest, complete accounting is necessary. It will be helpful for the city and could save the lives of police officers in the future. Among the questions the investigations should answer:
• How was the decision made to look inside the house for Lacy; how did the initial confrontation unfold; and were department procedures followed?
Lacy's estranged wife told members of a task force — the deputy U.S. marshal, a St. Petersburg police officer and a Pinellas sheriff's deputy — that Lacy was in the attic and probably armed. The task force had not expected Lacy to be there and called for assistance. The deputy U.S. marshal and Yaslowitz, who arrived to assist, entered the house, attempted to apprehend Lacy and Lacy began shooting.
• How were the response and the rescue attempts decided upon and coordinated?
The incomplete police radio exchanges that have become public are understandably tense and occasionally chaotic. A fuller picture of how decisions were made regarding equipment, tactics and manpower will be a helpful learning tool for both the community and the department.
• How were decisions made about tearing apart the house after the shooting stopped and with Lacy still inside?
Police Chief Chuck Harmon's determination to avoid additional loss of life is commendable. It is not unheard of for law enforcement officials to punch holes into buildings during confrontations. But this went beyond the ordinary and lasted for some time. Harmon estimates at least one-third of the house was demolished by the time Lacy's body was recovered and says it was the safest way to resolve the situation.
The investigations are not expected to review St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's order to demolish the house later that day after Lacy's body was found. By then, the front of the house and most of the roof was gone. Foster said he would not have acted so quickly if Lacy had survived and faced a trial, and Harmon said what was left of the house was too unsafe for officers to gather more evidence. The mayor's reaction is understandable, but he pushed the limits of his broad authority and left himself open to criticism. Looking forward, the city should clarify the process for such an emergency demolition.
Answering the reasonable questions about what happened on one of the most painful days in the history of the St. Petersburg Police Department should not tarnish the memories of those who gave their lives in service to the city. Investigations that are complete, transparent and public should inform a concerned community and benefit the police officers who perform dangerous tasks every day.