By BETH BURGER
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 the 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 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.
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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.
Wolfinger followed the Harris 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.
Harris turned onto Ninth Street West before continuing north over the Green Bridge into Palmetto and merging onto U.S. 19 and Interstate 275, 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.
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 a sergeant.
Family members of Smith publicly criticized the sheriff’s office over the weekend for pursuing Harris’ across the skyway.
That calls into question when it’s appropriate for law enforcement to participate in high speed chase.
At Bradenton Police Department, the policy is narrowly focused and only allows pursuit in the case of a violent felony offense.
“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. “
The policy states officers may engage in stops only if the suspect has committed or attempted to commit a violent forcible felony.
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.
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.