It is possible that an extensive review of the horrific circumstances surrounding the fatal shootings of three St. Petersburg police officers will result in some conclusions that could be uncomfortable for Chief Chuck Harmon. That is precisely why it is refreshing to see Harmon's willingness to seek a healthy scrutiny of the policies and tactics employed by officers when confronting suspects. His determination to learn from the tragedies is commendable, and the memories of Officers Jeffrey Yaslowitz, Thomas Baitinger and David Crawford demand no less.
Harmon expects to cast an appropriately wide net as he assembles a review panel. He hopes to include representatives from the Tampa Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, as well as other Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies, to examine tactics, policies and equipment issues that came into play during two fatal shootings involving officers and suspects only weeks apart.
Yaslowitz and Baitinger were killed and a deputy U.S. marshal was wounded during a lengthy standoff on Jan. 24 with Hydra Lacy Jr., a wanted felon hiding in an attic. Less than a month later, Crawford was killed while attempting to question 16-year-old Nicholas Lindsey, who has been charged in Crawford's death.
The review panel will be handed a delicate, emotionally wrenching assignment. Instead of entering the attic where Lacy was believed to be armed and hiding, would another approach have been better? Should all officers be required to wear protective vests while on duty? Crawford, who was not wearing a vest, was shot several times in the upper body. Would a vest have made a difference?
The panel's work could be useful to other law enforcement agencies as well as to the St. Petersburg police. Revisiting the details of the shootings will be painful for the law enforcement community and the officers' families, but it could produce insights and suggestions that could save lives in the future. While Harmon expects the panel to meet privately, it should be as transparent as possible in delivering its recommendations. The public has an interest in understanding what happened and what could be done differently. It would be public money that would pay for more equipment, and taxpayers should understand the reasoning for whatever might be needed.
Leadership involves making difficult decisions, inviting suggestions and considering changes. Many police chiefs would resist an independent review of the shootings, and Harmon's willingness to pursue one reflects those leadership qualities.