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A Times Editorial

Police used poor judgment in chase that led to bystander's death

An innocent man is dead because the Manatee County Sheriff's Office put pursuit of a suspected car thief above the safety of drivers in St. Petersburg. Mayor Bill Foster should demand an explanation from the Manatee sheriff on behalf of the victim's grieving family and other local motorists who were unnecessarily endangered. To chase a speeding stolen car across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and into St. Petersburg suggests a reckless disregard for the lives of others.

It was about 9:40 p.m. Friday when a Manatee County sheriff's deputy who was parked on a Bradenton street spotted a white Lexus SUV that had been reported stolen in Clearwater Sept. 1. The deputy tried to stop the car but it accelerated, so he gave chase — for some 24 miles, through the cities of Bradenton and Palmetto, over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and into St. Petersburg, at speeds pushing 100 mph.

The chase was called off when the Lexus exited Interstate 275 at 31st Street S traveling an estimated 75 mph. But by then, it was too late. The Lexus blew through a red light at 31st Street S and Fifth Avenue S and slammed into an Infiniti driven by Gary Lane Smith, a 56-year-old father on his way home from work. Smith was killed.

The Lexus driver, 16-year-old Ramesse Harris of Bradenton, was arrested after a short foot chase by St. Petersburg police. He faces charges of vehicular homicide, leaving the scene, aggravated fleeing and eluding, grand theft auto and driving without a valid license. Harris has at least a dozen arrests on his record.

The loss of life could have been multiplied many times over by Manatee's decision to chase the Lexus. On a Friday evening around 9:30 — in this case, the first night of a long holiday weekend — there is plenty of traffic on the Skyway Bridge and the interstate through St. Petersburg. Why a police agency would pursue a suspected car thief at high speeds across the Skyway and into another county at that time of night is inexplicable. There are also indications the Manatee deputy knew there was a teenage driver behind the wheel. An inexperienced driver, high speeds, a tall bridge, and interstate traffic dumping into city streets is a recipe for disaster.

There is no law that prevents an agency from pursuing a suspect into another agency's jurisdiction. There is no law that allows one agency to order another to stop its pursuit. But there is common sense. Manatee County defends the chase and says it conformed to a department policy that allows pursuits for car theft. That loose arrangement invites trouble, and it ought to stop at the county line.

Friday's incident demonstrates the wisdom of the St. Petersburg Police Department's policy against chasing stolen cars when no other crime is suspected. The risks are too great. The family of Gary Lane Smith can testify to that.

Police used poor judgment in chase that led to bystander's death 09/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 6:44pm]
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