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Pinellas beach cops have run people over, but still drive with few rules

Local agencies say officers need to drive on the sand to quickly respond to calls. Experts say the large vehicles come with risks.
This photo from May 2020 shows a Clearwater police SUV on Clearwater Beach. Law enforcement officers have three times run over sunbathers on Pinellas beaches over the last two years. Some experts say driving SUVs on the beach is a risk and departments should consider switching to all-terrain vehicles.
This photo from May 2020 shows a Clearwater police SUV on Clearwater Beach. Law enforcement officers have three times run over sunbathers on Pinellas beaches over the last two years. Some experts say driving SUVs on the beach is a risk and departments should consider switching to all-terrain vehicles. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 15|Updated Jun. 17

It has been two years since the incident and he still has nightmares.

In May 2020, William Koziarz was lying on the beach and listening to music on his phone when he was run over by an Indian Shores Police Department Ford Explorer driven by an officer on beach patrol. He said he didn’t even hear the SUV vehicle coming.

“There was a sign on the beach when I walked to the beach that day. It said ‘No motorized vehicles allowed,’ and 15 minutes later I get ran over by a police vehicle,” Koziarz said.

He spent two weeks in a hospital intensive care unit and his medical bills totaled $450,000, he said. Soft tissue separated from his bones in several areas of his body, including from his waist to his knee and from his belly button to his bottom. The 68-year-old now walks with a limp and is still in physical therapy. He said he has to exercise two hours a day and takes medications to manage pain.

Kevin John, 53, of Pinellas Park sits by an umbrella with a friend on St. Pete Beach near ATV tracks on June 8. Some law enforcement agencies are using ATVs instead of SUVs to avoid running over beachgoers.
Kevin John, 53, of Pinellas Park sits by an umbrella with a friend on St. Pete Beach near ATV tracks on June 8. Some law enforcement agencies are using ATVs instead of SUVs to avoid running over beachgoers. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

These types of accidents are rare, but they do happen. In February, a Clearwater police officer ran over a man’s leg while driving a Ford Explorer on the beach. And in May, a Pinellas deputy on beach patrol driving a sheriff’s office Chevrolet Tahoe ran over the upper back and right side of a woman lying on St. Pete Beach while on his way to respond to a 911 hangup call.

In Pinellas County, four law enforcement agencies are primarily responsible for patrolling the beaches: the sheriff’s office and police in Clearwater, Treasure Island and Indian Shores.

However, only one of the agencies has a policy broadly limiting the use of law enforcement SUVs on beaches — Indian Shores, which adopted the policy after Koziarz was run over.

Turtle eggs on the beaches are better protected than people, said John Phillips, a Jacksonville attorney who has represented multiple people run over on Florida beaches.

“We put (up) sticks and rope off areas so we protect our turtle eggs,” Phillips said. “But yet we’re going to let beach patrol, lifeguard, police vehicles, janitorial vehicles to drive up and down our beach, not in designated areas.”

Agency policies

After the May 2020 accident that injured Koziarz, Indian Shores Police Chief Rick Swann sent a directive to the agency the next day that suspended use of police SUVs on the beach with the exception of emergencies. The officer involved in the beach accident was suspended for three days without pay.

Now, to patrol the shores, the police department uses a one-person ATV and a “mule,” which is similar to an ATV, but is built for multiple people and has a flatbed. Officers go through training to operate the vehicles.

“They provide greater visibility when you’re on the beach,” said Indian Shores police spokesperson Capt. Glen Smith. “It’s easier to get around on the beach as well.”

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However, relying mainly on ATVs is not practical for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, which patrols the majority of the county’s beaches, said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

For example, if deputies were to use an ATV to respond to a call on the north end of St. Pete Beach, they would have to retrieve the vehicle from city hall, the sheriff said. If they got a call from Pass-a-Grille Beach during that time, they would then have to return the ATV to St. Pete Beach’s city hall before driving to the southern end of the peninsula in their cars and responding to that call.

With two or three deputies on beach patrol duty at a given time, driving in SUVs is often the more efficient choice, Gualtieri said.

Clearwater police use ATVs when they can on the beach, but the police chief says they still need to drive full-size vehicles on the sand.
Clearwater police use ATVs when they can on the beach, but the police chief says they still need to drive full-size vehicles on the sand. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“It’s a necessity for operational purposes,” he said. “People want to see a law enforcement presence.”

Gualtieri said he could not comment on the May accident on St. Pete Beach because of an ongoing internal affairs investigation, but said after the investigation is complete, the agency will consider updating its policy.

Much like with the Sheriff’s Office, the use of Clearwater Police SUVs on the beach often comes down to staffing, said Police Chief Dan Slaughter. While the department does sometimes use mules, officers may need to have quick access to their cars, he said.

“When you have fewer officers you can’t necessarily dedicate them full-time to be on the sand in a mule because they have to be able to respond to other calls for service in the entire geographic area that they’re responsible for,” he said. “And therefore, they get tethered to the car.”

When a Clearwater police officer ran over a man’s leg on the beach earlier this year, she was patrolling a district that included the beach, and was heading toward a jetty where she had seen people who weren’t supposed to be on the rocks, according to Clearwater Police spokesperson Rob Shaw. The officer received remedial training after the incident.

In addition to its use of mules on the sand, the department has created safety lanes for police vehicles, Slaughter said.

The Treasure Island Police Department uses trucks and SUVs for wide areas of the beach and UTVs — a small open-air, multi-person vehicle with a loading bed for narrow stretches, said city spokesperson Jason Beisel. Officers are not to drive at a speed greater than 15 mph except in an emergency, according to agency policy. Officers are instructed to keep their headlights on at all times and avoid driving near people.

Best practices

Jim Mulvaney, an adjunct professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said law enforcement agencies should consider whether it’s likely they’ll need to leave the beach during their shifts before dismissing the idea of using smaller vehicles, like ATVs.

SUVs can be helpful for driving on sand, so vehicles don’t get stuck. But they have their disadvantages, Mulvaney said.

“You don’t have a lot of line of sight down to the ground,” he said.

Instances of police running over beachgoers are not unique to Pinellas County.

Phillips, the Jacksonville attorney, said once his cases began attracting widespread media coverage, he began receiving about one call a year from a person who had been run over, most of them women and tourists struck by government vehicles. From 1993 to 2016, he tracked 18 incidents of sunbathers run over on Florida beaches — all but one from government vehicles.

In 2003, after a Miami Beach police officer ran over two French tourists — killing one — the agency set a policy replacing cars with bicycles or ATVs for patrols and limiting the speed and location of SUVs when used on beaches, according to news reports at the time.

Cayson Boals, 10, and brother Foster, 2, of Lakeland look for seashells on St. Pete Beach on Wednesday, June 8, 2022 in St. Petersburg. They come every year for vacation, their mom said.
Cayson Boals, 10, and brother Foster, 2, of Lakeland look for seashells on St. Pete Beach on Wednesday, June 8, 2022 in St. Petersburg. They come every year for vacation, their mom said. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

In California, the Los Angeles Police Department began major reforms after a woman run over by an officer in 2019 suffered serious injuries. Officer Harry Waring, who has been assigned to beach patrol with the agency for several years, helped develop a two-day beach driving class after the accident. He said it’s California’s only certified beach driving course.

Waring said officers are trained in several safety procedures. They are taught to circle their vehicles and check their surroundings every time they stop on the sand. They are required to have an officer outside of the vehicle to check for sunbathers and other safety concerns when backing up. And officers are prohibited from turning right, an angle at which they would not be able to see the ground from the left driver’s side of a vehicle. When the Pinellas deputy ran over the sunbather in May, he was turning right, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Since 2019, the Los Angeles Police Department has not had any new beach accidents, Waring said. Officers mostly patrol on mules and ATVS, which they keep at a substation on the beach and are only allowed to drive on the sand with a partner.

“The full-size vehicles are fine depending on your agency’s needs,” Waring said. “But for ours, we’ve come to the collective conclusion that outside of an emergency we don’t really need the full-sized vehicles out there.”

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