Law enforcement agencies serve their communities best when police and the public are on the same wavelength. That's why local officials need to think through the results of a new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll, which found that residents of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are about evenly split on whether police should be allowed to chase nonviolent criminals.
The poll found that 44 percent of respondents support allowing police to chase car thieves and others suspected of nonviolent crimes. But 43 percent oppose it, and 14 percent are undecided. The public clearly is not swayed that cracking down on lesser crimes by chasing nonviolent suspects, as police do on both sides of Tampa Bay, is worth the tradeoff in public safety.
Police say that chasing even nonviolent criminals can reduce crime by sending a message to repeat offenders, and they argue that restricting chases sends the opposite message that a city can be victimized. But the reality is not that simple. Most car thieves are teenagers out on a joyride. They have neither the driving skills nor judgment in a chase scenario to bring a vehicle under control. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 300 people are killed each year in car chases involving police. That is a high price to pay to recover economic losses like an insured vehicle.
The findings should give St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and the candidates in the March race for Tampa mayor something to think about. Residents clearly are mixed on the value of police chases. They are sensitive to the dangers to innocent motorists and bystanders. They do not see chases as a defining line between order and lawlessness. And they recognize that chase policies are too serious to be left to a political decision between candidates and the police unions.