St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has delivered on his campaign promise to allow police officers to engage in more high-speed car chases. The new policy is more modest than he originally proposed, but it still runs counter to national trends of toughening rather than loosening the rules. The mayor and the police chief will need to closely monitor the change to ensure that any crime-fighting gains do not come at the expense of public safety.
After a series of high-profile police chases in the Tampa Bay area killed innocent bystanders, St. Petersburg limited high-speed police chases in 1994 to the pursuit of violent suspects. The new rules will allow police to chase anyone accused of a "forcible felony," adding burglary to the list of crimes that can spark a high-speed chase. It also will allow officers to chase suspects who were caught breaking into or stealing vehicles, or who have been linked to a rash of thefts.
Chief Chuck Harmon, who previously resisted changing the policy, said the plan gives officers "a little bit more leeway and keeps safety in mind." For example, the policy will continue to require officers to obtain permission from a supervisor to continue a pursuit after it begins. But there will be more risk.
The response of a top union official Wednesday was, "It's game on now." That reflects the cowboy mentality Harmon will have to guard against if this new policy is going to work without jeopardizing innocent lives. And the outcome of high-speed chases under even the more restrictive policy is not encouraging: One-third of the 76 car chases by St. Petersburg officers in the past five years ended in crashes.
The pursuit policy depends heavily on officers' discretion about when a high-speed chase is appropriate. Each decision will be made in a unique set of circumstances: heavy or light traffic, time of day, residential or commercial street, and presence of pedestrians. Harmon also said he is revisiting whether to provide officers other methods for shortening high-speed chases, such as spike sticks to puncture a suspect's tires. Tampa police use such tools, along with giving officers the option of more aggressive maneuvers to shorten a chase.
Foster, with Harmon's blessing, has fulfilled a campaign promise and pleased the police union that supported him. Now Harmon will need to ensure his officers are appropriately trained and supervised so that the ultimate decision to pursue a suspect is based more on thought than adrenaline. If this change results in more serious accidents in high-speed chases and no significant reduction in crime, the price for this flexibility will be too high.