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A dangerous chase policy

The Tampa Police Department has unintentionally but unmistakably demonstrated the danger of high-speed chases and why they were restricted in the first place. In the five weeks since a new chase policy was instituted, two police cars have been totaled, two officers injured, a house demolished, a family left homeless and 13 people have been arrested. At least five others have gotten away.

Fortunately, no innocent bystanders have been injured or killed. But if statistics are any guide, it's only a matter of time.

That ominous thought does not deter Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who made the pursuit of car thieves a central theme of his recent election campaign. "If someone steals your car, we're going to chase him," he told campaign supporters on election night.

That brought a lusty response, and police have responded with equal enthusiasm. From all accounts, morale is up in the department, and Police Chief Bennie Holder says the new chase policy is partly responsible. Police had been frustrated watching teenage thieves flee with impunity.

Surely there are other ways of bolstering morale and enforcing the law without endangering the public. There clearly are better ways of fighting car thieves. Tampa police have the evidence before them.

Car thefts dropped 28 percent during the first three months of this year compared with the same period a year ago, the result of good, solid police work that targeted the thieves. That helped cut down on other crimes, too, since a lot of other crimes are committed with stolen cars.

That commendable record by the so-called RAT pack, or Reduce Auto Theft task force, has gotten lost in all the excitement of chasing car thieves.

As frustrating as it was to see thieves get away, it is even more maddening to see those same thieves show up again and again. The problem with car theft is only partly that the bad guys aren't stopped. Worse is that the bad guys are let go with little or no punishment because of a crowded juvenile justice system. Chasing teenagers won't stop that, but it certainly endangers the public.

A national survey done for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) pinpointed the risks of high-speed chases: a 1-in-5 chance of property damage, a 1-in-7 chance of injuries and a 1-in-35 chance of death.

It's such a dangerous practice that a speeding police car should be considered as deadly as a loaded gun. In deciding whether or not to chase, "You should ask yourself, would I be justified using a handgun against that person?" said David Tollett, director of the state and provincial police division of the IACP.

Most of the time such force is not justified, which is why most police departments today follow the same rules that Holder's predecessor, Eddie Gonzalez, put into effect. Those rules limit high-speed pursuits to cases involving violent suspects.

Car thieves are not the only category of suspects Tampa police now are encouraged to pursue. Burglary, drunken driving and firearms offenses also can touch off a chase.

But drunken driving, burglary and guns are different from car thefts. Drunken drivers in particular are imminent threats to anyone sharing the road. The same is not always true of car-theft suspects.

What really is at work here is politics and police morale. Greco seized on Tampa's dubious distinction of having one of the worst car-theft records in the nation and the rising police frustration at seeing bad guys get away. Now that he's elected, Greco is not going to back down _ at least not until an innocent bystander is killed or seriously injured, and the city is slapped with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

It is a shame it will take that, but it likely will. Until then, Holder ought to take the unsolicited advice of Bienvenido Colon, whose home was demolished Wednesday night by an errant police cruiser pursuing a stolen car (whose driver got away).

"I think they should get more training in driving and chasing people if they're going to do it," Colon said. "They can't let criminals just get away with it, but they have to do it professionally."