Tampa Police Should Change Chase Policy | Editorial

This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a high-speed Tampa Police Department chase in March that ended with three innocent bystanders dead or seriously injured. This case is a perfect example of why other law enforcement agencies across Tampa Bay and the nation have tightened their pursuit policies to better protect the public. Whether this chase complied with Tampa’s policy is one thing; the larger questions are why police supervisors allowed it to continue, and why Tampa shouldn’t join its forward-looking counterparts in better controlling these pursuits.

Tampa police Officer Darrin Gibson initiated a traffic stop March 12 after spotting a stolen Nissan pickup on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. As the Tampa Bay TimesTony Marrero reported, the Nissan’s driver sped away. Gibson pursued the Nissan for roughly 15 miles, well outside of his department’s jurisdiction. As the chase continued toward Plant City, the Nissan passed other vehicles on a two-lane road “in a reckless manner,” the arrest affidavit said, and at 11:15 p.m., crashed into a Honda Civic. The Nissan’s control module showed it was traveling at 101 mph five seconds before the crash and 62 mph at the time of the collision. Maria Del Carmen Torres, a 44-year-old Hillsborough school system employee, was killed, and two others in the car were seriously injured. The Nissan’s driver and three young passengers were taken into custody.

The finger-pointing must start with the driver of the stolen Nissan, whom the authorities identified as Calvin Sanford, a 15-year-old Tampa resident now charged as an adult with vehicular homicide. But Sanford’s fate rests with the criminal justice system. The separate issue here is how Tampa’s chase policy and the officers involved may have needlessly contributed to the tragedy.

At a news conference two days after the crash, Tampa police Chief Mary O’Connor said Gibson’s pursuit appeared to be justified under her department’s policy because Gibson determined the Nissan was involved in at least one auto burglary. Department data shows that, in the last several years, burglary was the most common offense cited for starting a pursuit. O’Connor added that supervisors continually monitor officers while they’re in pursuit to “balance the need to apprehend the suspect with the threat to public safety,” though she did not provide details about a supervisor’s role in Gibson’s chase.

Other law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area and across the country prohibit pursuits when the only suspected offense is a property crime, such as burglary. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office allows pursuits only if the suspect committed certain forcible felonies and is an “imminent and/or continuous threat” to the public. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office limits pursuits to felonies that involve the use or threat of physical force or violence, and prohibits pursuits in vehicle burglary and theft cases. Pasco County policy states that deputies are not allowed to pursue unless they have made “a reasonable conclusion” that the danger to the public by chasing is “significantly less than the immediate or potential danger to the public, should the suspect remain at large.” The St. Petersburg Police Department uses capital letters in its policy to emphasize that officers are only allowed to chase a suspect who has committed or is committing a violent felony.

There’s good reason for these more restrictive policies, according to Tom Gleason, a retired police captain and longtime law enforcement instructor who has trained officers in pursuits. Police chases are a risky tactic that often end in injury or death. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about one person a day was killed on average in pursuit-related crashes from 1996 to 2015. Many of those injured or killed are not involved in the pursuit. A USA Today analysis in 2015 showed more than 5,000 bystanders and passengers had been killed in police car chases between 1979 and 2013 — nearly half of all those killed in police pursuits during that time.

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We understand the counterargument: It’s antithetical to law enforcement for officers to allow suspects to get away, even if just temporarily. But the law has long recognized that not all crimes are the same. And society restricts police procedures in a variety of ways to balance law enforcement with the larger interests of public safety. It’s reasonable to pursue those suspected of forcible felony offenses — such as murder, sexual battery and home invasion robbery. But department data show that Tampa police engaged in 247 vehicle pursuits from 2014 through 2021, with 58 percent listed as auto burglary cases. And of the total pursuits in those years 79 — nearly one-third — resulted in a crash.

The public deserves answers, both about this chase and Tampa’s pursuit policy more broadly. Why did this chase continue for so long and so far outside the city’s jurisdiction? Did a supervisor approve, and if so, why? And what is the rationale after this latest tragedy to continue chasing for property crimes? Tampa Bay is growing, and the roads are getting deadlier. The police should not be contributing to this toll when other enforcement mechanisms are at their disposal.

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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