2 University of South Florida Students Die in Crash                             Home

In my daily search for pursuit news stories I came across a story in the USF student newspaper, The Oracle. Perhaps it was the fact that I had attended USF. Perhaps it was the suspicious circumstances surrounding the deaths that were related in the article. In any case, I began to gather information on the incident. My first task was to get hold of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Pursuit Policy.

 

I called that office and told the operator what I was looking for. I was switched over to a Lt. Garcia-I don’t recall which department he worked in. I told him that I wanted to obtain a copy of the HCSO pursuit policy. Click here for a synopsis of my conversation with Lt. Garcia-a lesson in institutional arrogance and on how not to handle lawful public records requests.

 

By the time I had finished with Lt. Garcia and the Capitans secretary I was more than a little upset with the HCSO. I go back to their website and attempt to get the phone number of the Public Information Office. I can find pictures of the staff but no phone number. I call the main number and the operator rings them. I talk to Lt. Reder. I tell him who I am and that I am working on a story for PursuitWatch about the USF incident. He informs me that there was not a pursuit. I told him that my impression from reading The Oracle story is that there was. He said I should refer to the press release. The deputy activated his lights and siren in an attempt to pull over the car for running a red light. The car sped away. The deputy deactivated his lights and siren and followed behind in case the car was stolen and was ditched-as anyone who had their car stolen would want. I asked who said the car was stolen. Lt. Reder said you never know. I asked if it was true that the HCSO policy required the deputy to turn away from the pursuit when the pursuit was terminated. He said that was true because we don’t want to push the suspect into continued reckless acts. But since this wasn’t a pursuit it was okay to follow behind. I asked him whether or not this incident was a pursuit wouldn’t the effect on the suspect be the same? He said it was not a pursuit. I asked him if it was the official position of HCSO that no pursuit had taken place. He agreed. And since no pursuit had taken place there was no mandatory review by District Deputy Commanders within 48 hours following the event. (I knew of this review because of an article concerning vehicle interception techniques I had published on PursutWatch at the request of Lt. Eisenberg, a training officer with HCSO) Again he said that this was the case. I told Lt. Reder of my difficulty in obtaining the HCSO pursuit policy. He said he couldn’t help me.

 

 

I then headed off to work where I would later consult my Public Records Guide, published by the Florida Attorney General’s Office. I knew that HCSO was guilty of ignoring the intent, if not the letter, of the Public Records law of the State of Florida.

 

Research done and notes taken I again called HCSO to speak to Lt. Garcia. As I stated earlier I didn’t recall what department he worked in. I told the operator who I was looking for and why. She didn’t know where to send me. I suggested that maybe it was the Records Department. I spoke to a very pleasant and cooperative lady there who said there was no Lt. Garcia there. She tried to find the right Lt. Garcia for me (I assume she had a departmental directory) with no success. I then asked if she could switch me to the Public Information Office. She asked for my name again and said she would be happy to. Lt. Reder came on the line and said why don’t you give me you email address and he would send me the policy. I did so and he emailed it to me. Seems like a long chain of events to result in a 20 second conversation that produced just the result that the Public Records law had intended.

 

Resources for the rest of the story:

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department Vehicle Pursuit Policy

The USF Oracle story    Cached version

The Tampa Tribune story   Cached version

St. Petersbugh Times story  Cached version

HCSO Press Release      Cached version

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My analysis of the USF incident:

 

 

The policy sates the definition of a pursuit as:

Vehicle Pursuit - An active attempt by a law enforcement officer in an authorized pursuit vehicle to apprehend the occupants of a moving vehicle, providing that the driver of such vehicle is or should be aware of the attempt, increases his/her speed, takes other evasive action(s), or refuses to stop in an attempt to avoid apprehension.

 

The fact that the suspect increased his speed once the officer activated his emergency equipment makes, by definition, the situation a vehicle pursuit.

 

The policy also states that the criteria for pursuit is:

1. The seriousness of the originating offense, and its relationship to the community's safety shall be the primary consideration for the initiation or continuation of any pursuit. a. At no time will a pursuit be initiated when there only exists probable cause for misdemeanor crimes or traffic violations. b. At no time will a pursuit be initiated for civil traffic infractions only. * c. Exceptions to paragraph (a) include: * (1) persons suspected of driving under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or controlled substance when at least three indications of impairment have been observed. * (2) persons suspected of leaving the scene of a traffic crash involving death or serious bodily injury.

 

Clearly the traffic offense (running a red light) was not sufficient justification for a pursuit so the deputy turned off his equipment. The policy requires that upon the termination of a pursuit:

1. Any time an order to terminate a pursuit is given and relayed to those involved, all deputies involved in the pursuit shall perform all of the following steps: a. immediately deactivate their vehicle's emergency equipment, b. terminate the pursuit, c. reduce the speed of their vehicle, and d. cease to follow the vehicle. * 2. All deputies involved in the pursuit and any deputy in the vicinity of the pursuit shall take overt action and drive their vehicle in a direction away from the pursued vehicle. Patrol units previously involved in the pursuit shall, via voice, advise the Communication Center that they have reduced the speed of their vehicle, and shall state their location and direction of travel.

 

The fact that the deputy followed behind, for whatever reason means that he was in violation of the pursuit policy and that the statement of the spokesman for HCSO stating that the policy was followed is misleading at best.

 

The is a very good reason that pursuit policies state that you should disengage emergency equipment and turn away from the pursuit-extensive research and years of experience have shown that once a suspect feels that he is no longer being followed he (or she) does one of two things:

    1. Ditches the car and tries to flee on foot. (This is particularly true if the car is stolen.)

    2. Slows down and tries to blend in with traffic. (There is no reason for him to risk being sighted by the next officer down the line.)

Having determined that the pursuit is not per policy or making the determination that the pursuit is too dangerous this allows the situation to defuse.

 

It is my understanding that no reports were filed or supervisory critiques were done as the policy requires. The department has simply stated that no pursuit took place-end of story.

 

An additional bit of information was gleaned from the newspaper accounts. Apparently Deputy Ennis called off his apprehension only after determining that the car was not stolen. Did he follow at high speed until he was able to run the tag number, and only then discontinue? Is this standard procedure for HCSO? A careful reading of the policy suggests not.

 

I have contacted the reporter at The Oracle as well as the reporter at The Tampa Tribune and The St. Petersburg Times and encouraged them to follow-up on this story. It would appear that the HCSO has completely side-stepped accountability and that the actions of the involved deputy may have contributed to the death of the suspect and his innocent passenger.

 

James Phillips

3/20/04
Edited and updated 3/25/04

 

 


 

 

UPDATE!As a result of a PursuitWatch investigation into the USF deaths we were able to present clear and compelling evidence that Deputy James Ennis of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office did not follow HCSO pursuit policy and, as a result, may have contributed to the deaths of the 2 students. Further we have shown that the HCSO is incorrect in saying that no pursuit took place. Consequently PursuitWatch has contacted several Tampa Bay news organizations with the evidence and urged them to follow-up. Unfortunately none have chosen to do so. As outlined in the PursuitWatch editorial "The presses roll and the carnage continues.." these news organizations have abrogated their important duty of insuring the accountability of government agencies. These are the organizations that Pursuitwatch contacted and email links. Please drop them a line and let them know what you think.

The USF Oracle                                          oracleopinion@yahoo.com
The St. Petersburg Times                         comments@sptimes.com
The Tampa Tribune                                    FDenton@tampatrib.com
Sarasota Herald-Tribune                 diane.tennant@heraldtribune.com
WFLA                                                        news@wfla.com
WFTS                                      generalmanager@abcactionnews.com
WTSP                                                 10news@tampabays10.com