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  1. Opinion

St. Pete police quietly left a task force on stolen cars. That’s the wrong move. | Editorial

While the annual trend lines have been encouraging, kids stealing cars and threatening public safety are still an issue in the city.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway. JAY CONNER/STAFF
St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway. JAY CONNER/STAFF
Published Aug. 14

Stolen cars and the deadly threat their drivers often pose to public safety have been high-profile issues for years in Pinellas County and particularly in St. Petersburg. The number of stolen cars recently has declined in the city in part because of the efforts of a countywide task force, but that’s no reason for St. Petersburg to pull out. Stolen cars remain a persistent problem, and St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway’s explanations for dropping out of the successful task force are curious and unsatisfying.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Zachary T. Sampson recently reported, Holloway has quietly pulled his officers out of the Violent Crimes Task Force—a partnership between St. Petersburg police, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the Clearwater Police Department. A department memo in May announced a new team that has additional priorities, including focusing on prostitution and drug sales as well as stolen cars. Yet the department provided little information to document those other issues need specific attention—and they do not put general public safety at risk as much as teens speeding around in stolen cars.

The timing of Holloway’s decision also raises red flags. The memo sent on the new team came shortly after two incidents on the task force that resulted in two police officers being disciplined. Both officers were found to be using excessive force during an arrest. Holloway told the Times Editorial Board this week those were isolated instances that did not influence his decision to remove officers from the task force. Perhaps it’s all just one big coincidence.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says the stolen car task force will continue to operate in St. Petersburg without the city police officers on the team. That’s good, but it would be in no one’s interest to return to the bad old days involving former sheriffs and police chiefs when the departments did not trust each other and too often did not know who was conducting what operations in the city. Mayor Rick Kriseman’s proposed city budget for 2019-20 includes more than $1 million to hire 13 additional officers, and Holloway says he would rejoin the task force if the City Council approves that request. But why leave the task force in May when he could have waited for the new officers?

While the annual number of stolen cars in the city has been declining, stolen car arrests of juveniles in St. Petersburg actually increased by 20 percent in the first six months of this year compared to the same period last year. And Holloway held a news conference last month to express his frustration about the number of cars being stolen that were left unlocked with the keys in them. That indicates there is more work to be done and something more behind Holloway’s decision than crime statistics and a questionable adjustment of priorities.

Teens stealing cars became so common that in 2017 the Times reported a kid crashed a stolen car every four days in Pinellas County. While the annual trend lines have been encouraging since then, teenagers have not stopped stealing cars. In the first six months of this year, 48 teenagers were arrested for auto thefts in St. Petersburg. The countywide task force should be expanded rather than contracted, and Holloway should reconsider his decision to leave it.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more.

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