MANATEE — Manatee County Sheriff’s Office investigators are reviewing a deputy-initiated pursuit that ended in the death of a 54-year-old St. Petersburg man after a 16-year-old suspect ran a red light.
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Charles Wolfinger noticed 16-year-old Ramesse Harris was behind the wheel of a stolen white Lexus SUV at 9:40 p.m. Friday in the 2700 block of First Street.
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dave Bristow said that under sheriff’s office policy, all pursuits are reviewed. He noted that in this case, Wolfinger had terminated the pursuit just before the crash occurred.
“We didn’t find any problems with it. It followed all of our pursuit procedures,” Bristow said.
The sheriff’s office allows deputies to pursue suspects when they have committed a felony offense other than fleeing from law enforcement, according to sheriff’s office general orders.
In this case, Wolfinger attempted to stop Harris on a third-degree felony offense of motor vehicle theft.
“In making the attempt (to affect an arrest), the safety of the general public must be considered. The primary purpose of a pursuit is to apprehend a suspect with the least amount of force necessary and minimize the risk of harm to persons and property,” the sheriff’s office pursuit policy states. “MCSO vehicles are to engage in pursuit only when the expected results outweigh the known hazards to deputies and the general public.”
Factors deputies consider in pursuits include the seriousness of the offense, the volume of traffic, location, road conditions and speeds involved, according to sheriff’s office guidelines.
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said narrowing the policy to include only violent felonies for pursuits would empower criminals. In other cities, he said criminals take notice when law enforcement can’t pursue.
“If that word gets out, you’ll have people breaking the law openly in front of law enforcement because they know law enforcement isn’t going to chase them,” Steube said, noting that on average deputies initiate about four pursuits per month.
“Obviously, very rarely does it result in a traffic crash or death,” he said.
Wolfinger, who was the only deputy pursing Harris, followed him onto 26th Avenue West. The Lexus accelerated up to speeds reaching 60 mph and Wolfinger activated his blue lights and sirens of his patrol car, according to sheriff’s reports.
Harris turned onto Ninth Street West before continuing north over the Green Bridge into Palmetto and merging onto U.S. 19 and Interstate 275, and continuing over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to St. Petersburg.
Harris exited at the 31st Street exit in St. Petersburg and a shift commander terminated the pursuit, according to a report.
Under sheriff’s office policy, if a pursuit enters an area outside of the county’s jurisdiction, the neighboring law enforcement agency is notified.
A St. Petersburg Police Department sergeant watched Harris exit the ramp reaching speeds at approximately 75 mph and did not see Wolfinger immediately behind the SUV, reports said.
Officers followed Harris as he ran a red light at the intersection of Fifth Avenue South and struck Gary Lane Smith, who was driving an Infiniti. Smith died at the scene, according to reports.
Harris fled and was apprehended by another St. Petersburg police sergeant.
Family members of Smith have publicly criticized the sheriff’s office for pursuing Harris across the Skyway, calling into question when it’s appropriate for law enforcement to participate in a high-speed chase.
At Bradenton Police Department, the policy is narrowly focused and only allows pursuit if a suspect has committed or attempted to commit a violent forcible felony.
“Vehicular pursuit of fleeing suspects presents a danger to the lives of the public,” the Bradenton Police Department policy states. “It shall be the policy of the department to narrowly regulate the manner in which vehicular pursuit is undertaken and performed.”
When questioned about pursuing a stolen vehicle resulting in a death of a civilian, Steube asked, “If we decide not to chase him and he ends up committing an armed robbery, what would I be answering questions for? It’s a sword that cuts both ways. What this kid did was against the law. ... This 16-year-old decided he was going to drive recklessly. Unfortunately, he struck an innocent civilian and killed him. We’re all pretty upset ... about that.”
Harris, 16, now faces criminal charges stemming from this incident, including vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of a crash involving death, aggravated fleeing and eluding involving death, aggravated fleeing and eluding, grand theft auto and having no valid driver’s license.
Napoleon Harris, Harris’ father, said authorities should not have pursued his son, but instead pick him up later on a warrant. He believes deputies knew his son was the driver. He said deputies could have issued a warrant and picked him up at school.
“That doesn’t even make sense for them to chase him that far,” Harris said. “Nobody would have got hurt. It should have never went that far. ... I feel sorry for (Smith’s) family over there.”
Steube said deputies received information the Lexus SUV was reported stolen through Clearwater Police Department and that Harris was a suspect. Wolfinger was never able to identify Harris as the driver, though, Steube said.
This isn’t the first time Harris has been arrested on charges of stealing a car.
According to local law enforcement, he has a previous arrest record of three counts of motor vehicle theft, one count of cocaine possession and two burglary charges. He has no prior arrest record of violent felonies.