Police departments have the best chance of maintaining trust in their communities when they are vigilant in holding officers accountable when they violate the rules. St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon struck the right balance last week in disciplining five officers and firing a sixth for their roles in two separate incidents, just six weeks apart, in which shots were fired into moving cars in violation of departmental policy.
Both incidents occurred earlier this year in the Midtown area and left occupants in the cars wounded and, in one case, resulted in an officer's bullet striking a home. Residents appropriately begin raising concerns about why department policy hadn't been followed, providing fodder for Mayor Bill Foster's two opponents in the August primary. But as Harmon explained last week, the two incidents stemmed from different circumstances, prompting him to mete out different sanctions.
In the first incident, March 8, Harmon found a trio of officers were in danger when they fired five rounds at a car that accelerated toward them as they arrived at a house to serve a search warrant. One officer was struck by the car in the leg. Harmon limited his discipline to a note in the file of the commanding officer, Sgt. Shannon Halstead. He questioned whether so many shots were needed, and he assigned the two undercover detectives, in lieu of discipline, to help the department research and develop training for high-risk search warrants and policies about shooting at cars.
But in the second incident involving a stolen car on April 15, Harmon found much more to concern him, and he suspended two officers for two weeks and fired a third. Officers Richard Bishop and Brandon Bill initially approached the car in an alley and fired a combined 18 rounds after the car's occupants refused to surrender and the car lurched forward, brushing one of the officers. Those two officers were suspended for two weeks. Harmon fired Officer George Graves after deciding Graves was in clear violation of departmental policy and in no danger when he fired at the car from about 90 feet away as it came out of the alley. One of his bullets struck the driver, and another hit a home.
The public needs to be able to trust that police officers will restrain themselves, whenever possible, from using deadly force and follow department rules. Harmon found an officer who did not do so and others whose response was out of proportion to the danger at hand and disciplined them accordingly. His efforts reminded his officers to follow department policy but also reassured the community that there are consequences when officers step outside the line.