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Better option than police SUVs on Tampa Bay’s beaches? | Editorial
Big crowds and SUV blind spots are a dangerous mix.
This photo from May 2020 shows a Clearwater police SUV on Clearwater Beach.
This photo from May 2020 shows a Clearwater police SUV on Clearwater Beach. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jun. 21

Some things naturally belong on Florida’s gulf beaches — kids, umbrellas, lounge chairs. Sport utility vehicles? Not so much. That’s why area law enforcement agencies should reconsider patrolling the shorelines with these heavy vehicles.

The Tampa Bay Times reported this week that only one of the four law enforcement agencies primarily responsible for patrolling the Pinellas County beaches has a policy broadly limiting the use of law enforcement SUVs along the sands. The report follows an accident in February when a Clearwater police officer ran over a man’s leg while driving a Ford Explorer on the beach, and another incident in May when a Pinellas deputy driving a sheriff’s office Chevrolet Tahoe ran over a woman lying on St. Pete Beach while responding to a 911 call.

Indian Shores Police Chief Rick Swann changed his agency’s use of police SUVs on the beach after a May 2020 accident; with the exception of emergencies, officers now patrol the shore using a one-person ATV and a “mule,” an ATV variant made for multiple people and outfitted with a flatbed.

The Pinellas sheriff’s office, which patrols the majority of the county’s beaches, and the police agencies for Clearwater and Treasure Island say that abandoning SUVs is impractical. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said SUVs are more efficient at covering territory. Clearwater police said the full-size vehicles allow officers to respond to calls both on-and-off the beach. Treasure Island restricts officers on routine patrol from driving on the sand at greater than 15 mph. These are reasonable concerns and precautions for keeping both officers and beachgoers safe. But are there better options?

Maybe the solution is a mix — more officers dedicated full-time to patrolling the beaches on ATVs, with regular patrol units in SUVs answering street calls. Those SUVs could always be deployed beachside in an emergency. Smaller vehicles on the beach have many advantages. Drivers have fewer blind spots. Patrol officers would be more in touch with their surroundings. And ATVs are easier to hear, keeping beachgoers more alert to oncoming vehicles.

The beaches are Florida’s great distraction. People go there to relax, play, nap. Children walk head down collecting shells and dart between the dunes. Nobody’s thinking about watching for traffic. And though tragedies are rare, preventing even one is important. That merits rethinking how to balance police vehicles and public safety on the beach.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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