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Tampa crashes reignite police chase controversy

A Tampa police car that hurtled off Interstate 275 last week during a high-speed chase and slammed into Maria Cardona's back porch did more than rip the wooden house from its foundation.

It thrust Tampa police into an uncomfortable spotlight. They expected to hear praise for their newest plan to get tough on thugs who eluded the law. Instead, they faced questions about why they ended up jeopardizing the very citizens they were supposed to protect.

"People live here," Cardona said Friday after building inspectors surveyed the $10,000 in damage to her home. "There are kids playing around here."

For the second time in six days, a Tampa police officer's high-speed chase ended with a mangled police car and a chillingly close call with serious injury.

Ironically, just as Tampa police wholeheartedly defend their new pursuits, both cases illustrate why police departments nationwide are increasingly shunning high-speed chases. Except in the relatively few cases where violent suspects try to escape, the sirens-wailing, lights-flashing police chases are increasingly left to Hollywood.

In other large metropolitan police agencies, a high-speed pursuit for anything less than a violent felon is considered too dangerous, too expensive and a grisly accident _ and a lavish lawsuit _ waiting to happen.

When police elsewhere cut back pursuits for car thieves and burglars 10 years ago, "almost the unanimous reaction of cops was, "Hold it. Are you telling us we can't chase bad guys?' " recalled Patrick V. Murphy, a 50-year police veteran and a former police commissioner of New York City, Detroit and Washington, D.C.

"Then evidence mounted," Murphy added, "and they realized the number of people and even police officers killed."

Not in Tampa. Here, police say they have spent three frustrating years having to sit and watch as teenage thugs in stolen cars waved goodbye with their middle fingers. Now, because of the new policy, police say they're back in the game. Recent crashes may signal some rusty high-speed driving skills, officers say, but nothing else seems to work.

"It was getting to the point where the word on the street was, "Go to Tampa, but steal a car before you do any other crime, because they can't chase you,' " said Ken Taylor, deputy Tampa police chief.

"At what point do we look the other way? We did that quite a while. Our fatalities went up. Our stolen cars went up. Our hit-and-runs went up. At what point do you say, "We'll just keep looking the other way because something might happen (in a chase)?'

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Three years ago, Tampa's high-speed pursuit policy was tightened as a safety precaution. But during his campaign, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco promised to change the policy. As of last month, the city's police may pursue not only violent suspects, but car thieves, drunk drivers and burglars.

So far, success is mixed at best. When all goes well, officers pursue a stolen car until the driver screeches to a stop, makes a run for it and is promptly greeted by other officers. That's what happened in six of 15 pursuits in the past month. They netted 19 suspects wanted for stealing cars, breaking into houses and violating probation.

But the other nine chases came to surprising _ and costly _ ends. Five suspects out-drove police and ran off. One 14-year-old boy got pinned beneath a car. Two police cars, costing taxpayers $25,000 apiece, were totaled. Two officers suffered broken bones. That's not to mention $40,200 in damage to houses, parked cars and fences.

Police say it's unfair to judge them on a few unfortunate accidents. In fact, Taylor said, officers aren't to blame for the mess. Supervisors may terminate a pursuit they deem too dangerous. Besides, Taylor said, if you want to look at the costs and benefits, check out the $36-million in cars stolen in the city last year. That doesn't even include the human toll exacted when criminals used stolen cars in violent crimes such as robberies.

"If you're cutting down $36-million in costs to half, that's worth it," Taylor said. "Now, if it's my house you knock off the foundation, I'll say it's not worth it. But we have a responsibility to actively and safely pursue criminals.

"The responsibility for any of this rests solely on the shoulders of the criminal. If they don't steal a cars or commit a robbery, we don't go after them."

That's one side. On the other are those who say basic intelligence gathering and surveillance catch more car thieves than rubber-burning pursuits.

With 92 deaths resulting from police chases in the past 15 years, Florida ranks 11th nationwide for pursuit-related fatalities, said Letty Landry, executive director of STOPP, a national group that advocates police restricting pursuits to violent felons.

"Oh, that's shocking," Landry said when she heard about Tampa police now chasing car thieves and burglars. "Is a human life really worth a stolen car that might have a book value of $2,000?"

The two sides do meet, somewhere in a police safe-driving course. Tampa police soon will get some refresher tips from Sgt. Mike Sluga, the department's senior driving instructor.

Officers need to be reminded that high-speed pursuits make them drive most aggressively when they also must be most cautious, Sluga said. It takes just 1 second for a car going 55 mph to travel 88 feet. Meanwhile, the rush of adrenaline, particularly in less-experienced officers, easily can consume good judgment.

"You know they may be armed," said Cpl. Gene Gowarty, an 11-year Tampa police veteran. "You know you're doing higher than the speed limit, and the radio is crackling, and the siren is in the background. Your heart is racing a mile a minute. It's like playing a video game that gets harder and harder because there's so much going on."

Still, Gowarty and other officers insist, they would break off a pursuit and lose a suspect rather than have someone's death on their conscience.

"You've got a gun and you've got a high-speed chase," explained Officer Salvatore Augeri, who helped chase two kids in a stolen car this month. "If you can't control your emotions, that's a real dangerous situation."

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