TAMPA — One Saturday night in March, Tampa police Officer Darrin Gibson spotted a stolen Nissan pickup on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
When Gibson turned on his lights and siren to make a traffic stop, police said, the Nissan’s driver sped away.
Gibson pursued the Nissan Frontier for roughly 15 miles, well outside of his department’s jurisdiction, at speeds topping 100 mph, records show. The chase ended near the Plant City limits when the Nissan slammed into the back of a Honda Civic.
Maria Del Carmen Torres, a 44-year-old data processor at Mango Elementary School who was riding in the Honda’s back seat, was killed. Two other people in the car — one of them Torres’ daughter — were seriously injured. The 15-year-old driver of the stolen Nissan has been charged as an adult with vehicular homicide.
The crash is the latest incident to underscore the dangers of high-speed pursuits, a risky law enforcement tactic that for decades has drawn scrutiny across the country. Pursuits often result in death and injury, prompting a growing number of agencies to restrict when officers can chase a suspect.
At a news conference two days after the crash, Tampa police Chief Mary O’Connor said Gibson’s pursuit appeared to be justified under her department’s policy because Gibson determined the Nissan was involved in at least one auto burglary. Department data shows that, in the last several years, burglary was the most common offense cited for starting a pursuit.
Other law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area and across the country prohibit pursuits when the only suspected offense is a property crime such as burglary.
That’s for good reason, said Tom Gleason, a retired police captain and longtime law enforcement instructor who has trained officers in pursuits. Chases often end in crashes, and catching suspects in nonviolent crimes is not worth the risk to the public, Gleason said.
He said what’s known so far about the pursuit that ended in Torres’ death appears to drive home that point.
“To the immature kids, it was just fun. To the family, it is a loss of a loved one,” Gleason said. “Were the decisions made that day by the Tampa Police Department in the best interest of the public? My answer is no.”
Data shows danger
Decades of data makes clear the danger of the chase.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an average of 355 people, or about one per day, were killed annually in pursuit-related crashes from 1996 to 2015.
Many of those injured or killed are not involved in the pursuit. A USA Today analysis in 2015 showed more than 5,000 bystanders and passengers had been killed in police car chases between 1979 and 2013. That was nearly half of all people killed in police pursuits in that time frame. Most bystanders were killed in their own cars by a fleeing driver, the analysis showed. Tens of thousands more were injured.
From 2016 to 2020, an additional 1,903 people were killed in crashes involving police pursuits, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
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By the 1970s, law enforcement generally had an unofficial credo, said Geoffrey Alpert, one of the nation’s leading experts on police pursuits: “Chase until the wheels fall off.”
“Anytime a suspect fled the police, they weren’t going to let them get away, and we saw all sorts of injuries and deaths,” said Alpert, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina who has studied high-risk law enforcement activities for three decades.
The Justice Department in 1990 called pursuits “the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities” and urged police departments to adopt policies listing when officers can and cannot pursue someone. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has advised agencies to draft polices that require personnel to weigh the value of capturing a fleeing suspect against the danger posed by chasing.
By the 1990s, concerns for officer and public safety, along with a key court ruling stemming from a Tampa Bay chase, prompted some agencies to start tightening pursuit policies, Alpert said.
In 1992, the state Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the case of Susan and Judy Brown. The sisters, both in their 20s, died in 1984 when their car was hit during a Pinellas County pursuit. The Brown family sued the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the municipalities of Kenneth City and Pinellas Park. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the family, making municipalities liable in suspect pursuits.
The year of the state Supreme Court ruling, the Tampa Police Department stiffened its policy so that officers could pursue only when the driver was suspected of a felony or posed a violent threat. But after the city’s crime rate shot up, the policy was relaxed to allow for pursuits in more circumstances. In 1995, then-Chief Bennie Holder told officers they could chase drivers suspected of car thefts, burglaries and drunken driving.
Seven months later, two German tourists died when their car was broadsided by a teen in a stolen Honda being chased by Tampa police officers. The city later paid $142,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by their families.
Tampa wasn’t the only city that cited crime increases for relaxing their pursuit policies or declining to tighten them in the first place, Alpert said. But he said crime has still increased in cities with less restrictive pursuit policies.
Tampa’s policy now allows pursuits when the officer believes that someone in the pursued vehicle has committed or attempted to commit any forcible felony defined by Florida law. Those include crimes such as murder, sexual battery and home invasion robbery.
Burglary is also a forcible felony, and Tampa’s policy specifically states that officers can pursue suspects in any burglary of a structure or vehicle whether or not they are occupied at the time.
The policy states that officers must consider the nature of the specific crime used to justify the pursuit when weighing the need to immediately apprehend a suspect. For example, it says, “a more rigorous pursuit would be justified when attempting to arrest a homicide suspect than when attempting to capture a burglary suspect.”
In any event, the policy states, “pursuits shall not continue past the point in time when the danger to the public or law enforcement personnel outweighs the need to immediately apprehend the suspect.”
Department data shows how often Tampa police officers pursue in auto burglary cases.
Officers engaged in 247 vehicle pursuits from 2014 through 2021. Of those pursuits, 144, or about 58 percent, are listed as auto burglary cases. About 1 in 5 was an aggravated assault case. Of the total pursuits in that time period, 79 — nearly one-third — resulted in a crash.
From 2018 through 2021, the only years for which data was readily available, Tampa police engaged in 104 pursuits. They resulted in five injuries, one death and 74 arrests.
Allowing pursuits for property crimes is in contradiction to progressive policies that allow chases only for violent crimes, which research shows the public supports, Alpert said
“That’s something the community should be up in arms about because it’s not worth the risk to the public over a piece of property when you start chasing, because we know how these things end,” he said.
When the Pinellas County Sheriff Office tightened its policy in 2014, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri cited an uptick in pursuits and the need to ensure that deputies were chasing suspects only “in life-and-death situations.” A burglary, he said, “isn’t worth somebody’s life.”
Pinellas deputies can start a vehicle pursuit only if the suspect committed certain forcible felonies and is an “imminent and/or continuous threat” to the public, or if the person is engaged in “extremely dangerous driving” that “must not be the result of the initiation of a pursuit,” the policy states.
The St. Petersburg Police Department uses capital letters in its policy to emphasize that officers are only allowed to chase a suspect who has committed or is committing a violent felony.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office limits pursuits to felonies that involve the use or threat of physical force or violence, and prohibits pursuits in vehicle burglary and theft cases.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office policy states that deputies are not allowed to pursue unless they have made “a reasonable conclusion” that the danger to the public by chasing is “significantly less than the immediate or potential danger to the public, should the suspect remain at large.”
The Florida Highway Patrol has a more permissive policy than many agencies, allowing troopers to pursue drivers suspected of committing DUI, reckless driving and any felony. The policy limits pursuits of motorcycles to forcible felony cases.
Fatal pursuit reached 108 mph
The arrest affidavit for Calvin Sanford, the 15-year-old Tampa boy who police said was driving the stolen Nissan and is being prosecuted as an adult, lays out the police account of the roughly 17-mile chase.
Driving his marked Ford Explorer, Gibson spotted the stolen Nissan Frontier about 11:01 p.m. Gibson tried to make the traffic stop near 34th Street and the driver took off at a high rate of speed, according to the affidavit.
Sanford tried to lose Gibson by driving north in the southbound lane of a roundabout at 34th Street and Lake Avenue. The chase continued toward Plant City, at one point reaching 108 mph, according to the affidavit. The Nissan passed other vehicles on the two-lane Turkey Creek Road “in a reckless manner.”
At 11:15 p.m., the pickup crashed into the Honda Civic at the intersection of Turkey Creek and Trapnell roads.
A Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office aviation unit caught the crash on video, according to the affidavit. It doesn’t say when the aviation unit first spotted the truck.
With Sanford in the Nissan were three passengers — two 14-year-olds and a 12-year-old, police said. Sanford and two others were quickly taken into custody. The fourth ran away and was caught in a nearby neighborhood.
The Nissan’s airbag control module showed the truck was traveling at 101 mph five seconds before the crash and 62 mph at the time of the collision.
At a March 14 news conference, O’Connor said that a 24-year-old woman riding in the Honda was the daughter of the woman who was killed and remained in critical condition. The other passenger, a 30-year-old man, was in stable condition. The department has not released their names, citing Marsy’s Law. The Tampa Bay Times confirmed independently that Torres was the woman killed.
Gibson started the chase “because he recognized it as a stolen vehicle that was used to also commit at least one auto burglary,” O’Connor said. “This is a justified reason for pursuit under our policy. However, this investigation has just begun.”
O’Connor added that supervisors continually monitor officers while they’re in pursuit of suspects to “balance the need to apprehend the suspect with the threat to public safety.” She did not provide details about a supervisor’s role in Gibson’s chase.
A Tampa police spokesperson said an internal review of the incident was still underway and the department would not comment on the open investigation.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is conducting the crash investigation. In response to a Times public records request, the Sheriff’s Office cited the active investigation for why it released just eight almost completely redacted pages of the investigation report.
Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt’s office is representing Sanford. Holt declined to comment for this story.
At a time when the public is demanding increased law enforcement accountability, agencies should be focusing on de-escalating situations to reduce the danger to the public, and that goes for vehicle pursuits, too, said Gleason, the law enforcement trainer.
Gleason has taught at the Florida Law Enforcement Academy and for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He is also an advisory board member for a nonprofit organization called PursuitSAFETY, which works to reduce what it calls “avoidable police pursuits” and the associated injuries and deaths. He started working with the group and teaching driving safety courses about two decades ago after his son, a military police officer, was killed in a patrol car crash while riding with an officer who was speeding.
Property crimes such as burglary can often be solved later with evidence such as fingerprints and DNA, Gleason said. He noted that statistics show young teens, who lack both driving ability and the maturity to think about long-term consequences of their actions, are often behind the wheels of stolen cars.
“Part of de-escalation training,” he said, “is making better choices for all of those involved.”
Maria Torres lived in Plant City with her fiance, Santiago Arroyo-Padilla. Reached by the Times, Arroyo-Padilla said he’d think about commenting for this story but did not respond to subsequent text and voicemail messages. Efforts to reach other family members were not successful.
Torres worked at Mango Elementary for 14 years, a spokesperson for Hillsborough schools said.
Ancy Thomas, a school nurse who worked with Torres at Mango Elementary, said Torres was a kind and helpful presence at the school, especially to families who spoke Spanish and needed a translator.
“She was always ready to help everybody,” Thomas said. “The community has lost a big resource.”