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Pinellas sheriff tightens pursuit policy

LARGO — On May 1, 2012, members of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Strategic Enforcement Section tried to stop a motorist because, among other things, the car had an expired tag and tinted windows, according to an internal affairs file on the incident.

When deputies tried boxing in the car at an apartment complex, the suspect drove toward one of the deputies, in essence committing an aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, and the chase was on.

A minutes-long high-speed pursuit ensued, much of it in St. Petersburg, before the unit lost sight of the car, which later turned up abandoned.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri decided seven months later to review the pursuit policy.

On Monday, he announced a stricter new policy — one that is more in line with St. Petersburg Police Department rules.

Although the old policy does not specify crimes the motorist must have committed, the new one does, and it rules out many allowed under the old policy.

For instance, deputies can chase a motorist or passenger who has committed some, but not all, forcible felonies. They may pursue murderers, rapists and armed thieves, but not someone who has committed a property crime such as burglary of an unoccupied home or setting fire to an unoccupied business. They are not allowed to chase car thieves, either.

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St. Petersburg has a similar policy. Officers may pursue only violent felons, such as rapists, murderers and armed thieves, department spokesman Mike Puetz said. Officer formerly could pursue people suspected of having committed a burglary, but Mayor Rick Kriseman eliminated that exception.

“Our policy is stricter than those agencies that have limited it to violent felonies,” Gualtieri said, because, among other things, the sheriff’s office has excluded aggravated assaults unless there is a weapon involved.

Both sheriff’s policies mention that deputies should consider their safety and that of the public before initiating a pursuit, although the new one stresses such safety is “of paramount importance.”

Similarly, both policies say the suspect driver must pose an imminent threat to the public, either because of a presumed crime or for reckless driving.

The commission of a forcible felony alone is not justification for a pursuit. The deputy has to believe the suspect poses a threat to someone if not immediately apprehended.

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And, when it comes to reckless driving, it has to be “extremely dangerous,” the new policy states. Gualtieri said someone driving 80 mph on the Bayside Bridge, weaving slightly in and out of lanes, would not qualify.

“We have to make sure that what we do is the right thing in that it’s justified under the circumstances,” the sheriff said.

“When we have to go knock on somebody’s door at 3 o’clock in the morning and tell that 30-year-old woman who answers the door, who’s got three kids, ages, 2, 4 and 6 in bed sleeping, that her husband’s dead, he was involved in a car wreck and he’s not coming home,” Gualtieri said, “when she asks why [and] we tell her it’s because of a pursuit ... it better be worth it.

“It better not be for a property crime,” Gualtieri said. “It better not be for a stolen car.”

Well before the implementation of the policy announced Monday, Gualtieri and his staff had worked to change deputies’ mind-set regarding police chases and, as a result, cases of pursuit have dropped, from 134 in 2012 to 61 last year.


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