TAMPA — The Tampa Police Department has tweaked its policy on pursuing auto burglary suspects after a recent chase led to a woman’s death.
Tampa police officers pursuing auto burglary suspects are now required to check with a supervisor for permission to continue with the chase, police Chief Mary O’Connor announced Friday. She called it “a new layer of supervisory accountability.”
“When an officer is involved in a pursuit, we must continuously balance the need to apprehend versus the risk to the public,” O’Connor said. “This new process will allow supervisors who are not involved in the actual pursuit to evaluate the speeds, the location, whether or not it’s a congested area, the time of the day and whether or not the pursuit should continue.”
O’Connor made the announcement at a news conference called to tout what she called significant progress made during her first 100 days on the job.
The tweak to the pursuit policy comes about two months after Tampa police Officer Darrin Gibson chased the driver of a stolen Nissan pickup to Plant City, where the driver crashed into 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 boy who police said was driving the Nissan pickup has been charged as an adult with vehicular homicide.
A Tampa Bay Times story published this month noted that many law enforcement agencies, including several in the Tampa Bay area, limit pursuits to violent felony cases and forbid chases in property crime cases such auto burglary. The Tampa department’s policy allows pursuits of suspects in every type of forcible felony as defined by Florida law, including burglary.
The story cited department data showing about 58 percent of the 247 vehicle pursuits that Tampa police engaged in from 2014 through 2021 were listed as auto burglary cases.
At a news conference two days after the Plant City crash, O’Connor said the pursuit appeared to be justified because Gibson recognized the Nissan as a stolen vehicle that was used to also commit at least one auto burglary. At the time, O’Connor said supervisors monitor officers while they’re in pursuit to “balance the need to apprehend the suspect with the threat to public safety.” She did not provide details about what, if any, role a supervisor played in Gibson’s pursuit.
The department has declined further comment on the pursuit, citing a still pending internal investigation.
O’Connor, who retired from the department as an assistant chief in 2016 and returned as chief on Feb. 8 when Mayor Jane Castor announced her appointment, held Friday’s event at the RICH House in Robles Park. The acronym stands for Resources in Community Hope, and the facility and one like it in Sulphur Springs offer after-school and summer school programming, as well as access to family social services.
O’Connor helped open the Robles Park location when she was a captain in 2013 and announced Friday that plans are in the works to open a third location, in West Tampa.
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During a 15-minute address, the chief pointed to headway the department has made on her top priorities: working with the community; reducing violent crime; bolstering officer safety and wellness; and running the department “in a transparent manner with a strong level of accountability.”
“When I was appointed to become Tampa’s police chief, I made promises to focus on four core areas, and I’m here today to tell you that we are working hard to make good on those promises,” she said.
Among the other developments that O’Connor highlighted:
- The department’s new behavioral health unit, which pairs mental health professionals with patrol officers, has in the last six months helped reduce Baker Act cases. The Baker Act is a Florida law that allows law enforcement to take people in protective custody if they are suspected of being a danger to themselves or others.
- The department is partnering with the the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to access a database called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. When an officer inputs information about a gun crime, software will determine if a similar gun or the same gun was used in any other crimes in Tampa. That will allow investigators to identify suspects quicker, O’Connor said.
- The department is creating a new dashboard that will display demographic data on traffic stops. Criminal justice experts say collecting deep data on traffic stops allows agencies to identify racial disparities and patterns that go beyond individual complaints, and that making the information easily accessible to the public is crucial for accountability and transparency. The Times reported last month that O’Connor made the commitment to one group that has asked for the database, the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality.
- The department has amended the body camera policy to prohibit officers from powering down their cameras. Instead, officers can put the camera into sleep mode or mute them when in privacy situations or when the need arises to stop recording. Powering down of the camera caused a one-minute delay in recording after it was turned on again, O’Connor said, and “I wasn’t willing to take that risk to lose that critical minute of footage.”
- O’Connor said she has “reinvigorated” the department’s chaplain program so chaplains are available to officers and city residents.