Four years after politics led St. Petersburg to change its police chase policy to allow high-speed pursuits of some nonviolent criminals, Mayor Rick Kriseman fulfilled a campaign promise Thursday and changed it back. It is the correct decision, because high-speed police chases that jeopardize the lives of innocent bystanders should be rare occurrences.
Former police Chief Chuck Harmon never thought it was a good idea when then-Mayor Bill Foster changed the city's long-standing chase policy that authorized high-speed pursuits only if the driver is suspected of committing a violent crime or would endanger the public if allowed to escape. Under Foster, police officers could also pursue those suspected of a "forcible felony," adding burglary and vehicular theft to the list.
On Thursday, acting police Chief David DeKay told the City Council that effective immediately, the policy is reverting back to the more restrictive model.
Police union officials who backed Foster's failed re-election bid predictably criticized the decision. Supporters of more aggressive chase policies claim that chasing even nonviolent offenders can suppress crime by sending a message to repeat offenders. But that ignores the real cost when police pursuits go awry and even with the more lenient policy St. Petersburg's crime rate rose in the first half of last year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Board has estimated at least 300 deaths a year can be attributed to police chases, and at least one-third of those were innocent bystanders. Officers also face greater risks in such pursuits. That is too high a price to pay when the effort is to recover a piece of property.
Kriseman was right to return to a high-speed police pursuit policy that puts more value on the lives of innocent bystanders and police officers who risk their lives to protect everyone.