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A Times Editorial

Shootout report clarifies but falls short

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe's report on last month's deadly shootout between a felon and St. Petersburg police provides helpful clarity. It details the logical steps taken before Hydra Lacy Jr. was confronted in the attic, and it recounts the remarkable heroism by police officers who risked their lives to rescue fallen colleagues. But the report falls disappointingly short in concluding that decisions by St. Petersburg Chief Chuck Harmon and Mayor Bill Foster to demolish the house and destroy the crime scene were of no consequence.

As expected, McCabe cleared the 10 St. Petersburg officers who exchanged gunfire with Lacy in the Jan. 24 standoff. The report confirms that Lacy shot and killed Sgt. Tom Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz, and that Lacy was killed by police. These were the first St. Petersburg officers to be killed in the line of duty since 1980, and their deaths stunned a community unaccustomed to such tragedy. The city and the Police Department had yet to recover when Officer David Crawford was shot and killed Monday night. A 16-year-old was arrested the following night, and police say he has confessed.

The state attorney's report and a Police Department chronology offer important context in detailing how Yaslowitz and a U.S. deputy marshal wound up confronting Lacy in the attic. Lacy's estranged wife, who met a fugitive task force at the front door, was neither entirely trusted nor candid. Yaslowitz first searched the house with a dog and came up empty. A lighted mirror was used to inspect the attic and turned up nothing. The deputy marshal and Yaslowitz then went inside the attic and saw no one, and Yaslowitz was expected to follow the deputy marshal back down a ladder when he spotted Lacy. While it is common for officers to apprehend suspects in attics, the department's policy for handling these dangerous situations should be reviewed as Harmon has pledged.

In Lacy, police confronted a wanted fugitive with no regard for life or human decency. He told Yaslowitz he was surrendering and shot him at close range, lied to other officers about Yaslowitz's condition and used the officer's body to lure others into firing range. The riveting account of the rescue attempts reflect the courage and commitment of police officers who risked their lives to save others.

McCabe undercuts the objective tone of his report by complaining about "so-called 'experts' " who raised legitimate questions about how the police handled the situation. More concerning, he provides cover to Harmon and Foster for their decisions to destroy the house by writing they "had no material impact on this investigation or the conclusions herein.'' It would not have been better to be able to examine the crime scene? Such a conclusion defies logic.

While Harmon's effort to avoid further loss of life is understandable, the police spent more than three hours ripping the house apart before removing Lacy's body. With the house's roof and front wall gone, Foster then ordered the rest of it torn down. The Police Department's tactical decisions should be reviewed, and the city should clarify the process for an emergency demolition.

Shootout report clarifies but falls short 02/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 24, 2011 10:53pm]
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