Tampa Police Department adjusts pursuit policy after fatal manhunt

TAMPA — The Tampa Police Department has adjusted its policy on pursuing auto theft suspects after a recent manhunt left a woman dead.

Police Chief Mary O’Connor announced Friday that Tampa police officers pursuing car burglary suspects must now check with their supervisors for permission to continue the pursuit. She called it a “new layer of regulatory accountability.”

“When an officer is involved in a pursuit, we must constantly balance the need for an arrest with the risk to the public,” O’Connor said. “This new process will allow supervisors not involved in the actual pursuit to assess speed, location, whether it is a congested area, time of day and whether the pursuit should continue.”

O’Connor made the announcement at a press conference to publicize the significant progress she’s made in her first 100 days on the job.

The change to the pursuit policy comes about two months after Tampa police officer Darling Gibson chased the driver of a stolen Nissan pickup to Plant City, where the driver crashed into a Honda Civic. Mango Elementary School data processor Maria Del Carmen Torres, 44, was killed in the back seat of the Honda. Two other people in the car – one of whom was Torres’ daughter – were seriously injured. Police say the 15-year-old boy driving a Nissan pickup has been charged with vehicular homicide.

Tampa Bay Times story Posted this month Note that many law enforcement agencies, including several in the Tampa Bay area, limit pursuits to violent felonies and prohibit pursuits for property crimes such as auto theft. Tampa department policy allows for the pursuit of suspects for various types of felony crimes as defined by Florida law, including burglary.

About 58 percent of 247 vehicle chases conducted by Tampa police from 2014 to 2021 were classified as auto thefts, the report cited department data.

At a news conference two days after the Plant City crash, O’Connor said the pursuit seemed warranted because Gibson believed the Nissan was a stolen vehicle used to also commit at least one auto theft. At the time, O’Connor said supervisors would monitor police officers as they “balanced the need to apprehend suspects with the threat to public safety.” She did not elaborate on the supervisor’s role, if any, in Gibson’s pursuit.

The department declined to comment further on the matter, citing an internal investigation still ongoing.

O’Connor retired from the department as assistant chief in 2016 and returned to the post on Feb. 8 when Mayor Jane Custer announced her appointment, with an event at RICH House in Robles Park on Friday. The acronym stands for Resources in Community Hope, and Sulphur Springs facilities and similar facilities provide after-school and summer school programs, as well as access to family social services.

O’Connor helped open the Robles Park location when he was captain in 2013, and on Friday announced plans to open a third location in West Tampa.

In a 15-minute speech, the chief pointed to the department’s progress on her top priorities: working with communities; reducing violent crime; enhancing the safety and health of officers; Accountability” to manage the department.

“When I was named police chief in Tampa, I made a commitment to focus on four core areas, and I’m here to tell you today that we’re working hard to deliver on those commitments,” she said.

Other developments highlighted by O’Connor include:

  • The department’s new behavioral health unit, which pairs mental health professionals with patrol officers, has helped reduce Baker Act cases over the past six months. The Baker Act is a Florida law that allows law enforcement to place people in protective custody if they suspect they are a danger to themselves or others.

  • The department is working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to access a database called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. When officers enter information about a gun crime, the software will determine if a similar firearm or the same gun has been used in any other crime in Tampa. This will allow investigators to identify suspects more quickly, O’Connor said.

  • The department is creating a new dashboard that will display demographics at transit stops. Criminal justice experts say Collecting in-depth data on transit stops enables agencies to identify racial disparities and patterns beyond individual complaints, and making information readily available to the public is critical for accountability and transparency.era It was reported last month that O’Connor made a commitment One group that requested the database, Hillsboro Progress and Equality.

  • The department has revised its body camera policy to prohibit officers from turning off their cameras. Instead, police can put the camera in sleep mode or mute it in privacy situations or when they need to stop recording. O’Connor said powering off the camera caused a one-minute delay in recording after turning it back on, and “I wasn’t willing to take the risk of losing that critical minute of footage.”

  • O’Connor said she has “revitalized” the department’s chaplaincy program so officials and city residents can use chaplains.

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