LARGO — A St. Petersburg police officer in a marked patrol car recently spotted a white Jeep in the downtown area, ran the license tag and saw that it was stolen.
Instead of trying to stop the Jeep, officers in unmarked cars kept the Jeep in sight while a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office helicopter flew to the area. When the Jeep stopped at a shopping plaza in Clearwater at East Bay Drive and Belcher Road and two people got out and ran, the helicopter kept them in view, officers set up a perimeter and used police dogs to catch both men.
The coordination between agencies was the product of a new auto theft task force that formed in August. Staffed with members of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office and the St. Petersburg and Tampa police departments, its purpose is to pool resources of all three agencies — especially helicopters flown by the Sheriff's Office and Tampa police — to catch suspects by surprise, minimizing the chance they'll flee at high speeds, officials said Friday at a news conference announcing the task force.
"Without Tampa and without the Sheriff's Office we'd still be chasing a lot of these cars throughout the city," said St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway. "This made it much safer for us."
The agencies formed the task force after noting a drastic uptick in auto thefts this year. From January to June, thefts were up 31 percent in the Pinellas sheriff's jurisdiction, 23 percent in St. Petersburg and 47 percent in Tampa compared with the first six months of 2014. Many thieves are stealing vehicles from one side of the bay and dumping them on the other, especially from Tampa to south St. Petersburg.
"As we dug into it we realized that it had a common factor," Tampa Chief Eric Ward said. "It was the Howard Frankland Bridge."
A large number of suspects are juveniles out on joyrides using stolen cars or to commit other crimes, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. The thieves sometimes engage in a "deadly game of cat and mouse," speeding away when they see marked police cars.
Each morning, task force members meet on a conference call to go over "hot sheets" — lists of stolen cars in the area and then hit the streets. If a stolen car is spotted with someone inside, officers on the ground keep their distance until a helicopter and officers or deputies in unmarked cars can respond.
The task force so far has netted 64 arrests, including 36 adults and 28 juveniles, and recovered 46 stolen vehicles. The arrests have resulted in 171 charges including grand theft auto, fleeing and eluding, resisting arrest, hit and run and drug possession.
A majority of the vehicles were left unlocked, so authorities are pleading with owners to be diligent about securing their cars.
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.