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A Pinellas task force focuses on stolen cars. Why did St. Petersburg police leave it?

Chief Tony Holloway has offered several explanations for why he withdrew from a special unit that the sheriff says has reduced vehicle thefts.
St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway, left, and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri attend a community event at Tropicana Field in 2015. [DIRK SHADD  
 |   Times]
St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway, left, and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri attend a community event at Tropicana Field in 2015. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Aug. 8, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — After a particularly bad day in his city, when drivers of two stolen cars killed a woman and injured a police sergeant, Chief Tony Holloway told reporters he was frustrated.

Officers, he said, had managed to corral some of the juvenile auto thieves plaguing St. Petersburg. But car owners and parents still needed to step up, he declared at a July 16 news conference. He challenged them to lock their vehicles, to stop leaving keys in their unlocked cars and to keep track of their children late at night.

What the chief did not say was that weeks earlier he withdrew his officers from a prominent multi-agency task force that Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has credited with helping suppress teen-fueled auto thefts.

HOT WHEELS: Read the 2017 Tampa Bay Times investigation about the teens who turned stealing cars into a dangerous and deadly game in Pinellas County.

So why did the St. Petersburg Police Department leave the Violent Crimes Task Force? And what does that mean for the city’s effort to crack down on car thefts?

Holloway denied the exit meant he was devoting fewer resources to the issue. He said he reassigned the positions to a new team that will investigate stolen cars and other crimes he considers rising problems, such as prostitution and drug dealing.

“I needed to address some issues in St. Pete,” Holloway said. “And my manpower was going throughout the county.”

RELATED STORY: A pedestrian killed. A sergeant injured. Stolen cars still haunt St. Petersburg.

The Tampa Bay Times asked for data supporting the chief’s statement that prostitution was a growing or significant problem for the city before he created the new unit.

“We don’t have any data,” police spokeswoman Sandra Bentil wrote in an email, adding that “the upward swing in prostitution was observed by our officers.”

The decision has drawn skepticism and even ire from within the force, said St. Petersburg Officer George Lofton, the head of the local police union.

The task force, also called VCTF, is a joint partnership with the Sheriff’s Office and Clearwater Police Department. Lofton believes Holloway was motivated by complaints against the unit.

“Our chief has gotten in his mind that VCTF was roaming around and tracking people down and brutalizing citizens,” Lofton said.

Jabaar Edmond, a community organizer and vice president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, said he heard citizens complaining about the arrests made by the task force but did not know of efforts to lobby Holloway against the department’s participation.

“People felt that task force wasn’t community officers or people who had any ties to the community,” Edmond said.

But Lofton pointed to disciplinary actions taken against St. Petersburg officers working with the task force: Officer Andrew Viehmann was suspended for two weeks for using an electroshock device on a suspect surrendering on the ground, and another, Matthew Kirchgraber, received an employee notice for improper use of procedures after he punched a suspect three times. The Sheriff’s Office decided a deputy who acted similarly in that incident did not merit discipline.

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Holloway told the Times he did not pull his officers because he considered the unit to be a disciplinary problem. The memo announcing the new squad, the Police Anti-Crime Team, was sent May 8, two days after the suspect complained about Viehmann’s use of the electroshock device. That came a month after Kirchgraber’s punching incident.

RELATED STORY: St. Petersburg officer disciplined for using Taser on man lying on ground

Three days after the Times asked Holloway about St. Petersburg leaving the task force, he held a news conference on July 25 and announced that the two officers had been disciplined and that his entire department would undergo use of force training.

Lofton said St. Petersburg will suffer for withdrawing from the unit.

“I’m sure we’re still working on issues, but we’re not working on issues in the same effective manner VCTF was,” he said, adding that he thinks what the chief is “worried about is how good he looks in the press.”

Lofton said the city also gains major advantages by being in the task force, including quick access to the sheriff’s helicopter, which hovers above the county supporting units on the ground in searches. Deputies use a powerful camera below the helicopter, training it onto stolen cars or people fleeing through alleys even from thousands of feet away.

Stricter rules for high-speed pursuits mean officers frequently are not allowed to chase stolen cars, and the helicopter is more effective anyway.

The teens certainly know that. Tavirus Walters, arrested in the death of 26-year-old Phelexis Robinson in a stolen car crash last month, was quoted in a 2015 arrest report as saying officers never would have caught him in a stolen BMW “without that chopper” because he drove “too fast.”

The task force typically works hand-in-hand with the helicopter, meaning when the officers need assistance, it comes right away. Any agency can request the help, the sheriff said, but “it is more readily accessible and it’s going to be much more frequently used when it’s done in conjunction with VCTF.”

RELATED STORY: Stolen car leads to murder charge in death of St. Petersburg woman, police say

Gualtieri said years ago local authorities including agencies in Pinellas and Tampa police combined in a predecessor to the task force that helped stanch auto theft. They then shut down the unit.

“The problem resurfaced almost immediately,” he said. “All we were doing was pushing it down and suppressing it.”

The sheriff has devoted two more deputies to replace the five St. Petersburg officers the task force lost, supplementing the full squad of one Clearwater police officer and eight deputies. The task force still operates in St. Petersburg.

“That’s not changing, because I’m not going back to where it’s getting out of control,” Gualtieri said. He added that he does not believe the deputies on the task force use improper force or tactics.

RELATED STORY: At 14 he survived a stolen SUV crash that killed three. At 15 he stole again, deputies say.

Holloway asserted the new St. Petersburg police team, which consists of eight detectives and two sergeants, is covering work similar to the task force. But he said he can spread their shifts over time now and adjust to local concerns.

The sheriff said Holloway last told him the removal was a hiatus, and officers could be back in August.

Asked by the Times when he might put people back into the unit, Holloway said: “I don’t know.”

City Council member Amy Foster asked a similar question of the chief at the Aug. 1 council meeting, saying she had heard “through the grapevine” that the department decided to leave the task force.

Holloway denied that, saying he had merely pulled away officers temporarily to focus on sex crimes and other problems.

He said officers could return next year after the department hires and trains 13 new people.

Staff writer Aaron Holmes contributed to this report.

RELATED STORY: ‘We’ve got to stop this’: Two more Pinellas teens dead in a stolen car crash