Pinellas task force says St. Pete officer was justified in shooting death, but there were missteps

A peer investigation from a law enforcement task force has cleared an officer involved in a fatal shooting from early August, but finds several flaws with the way St. Pete police handled an investigation that turned deadly. 

The report, written by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and addressed to St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway, ultimately found that the fatal shooting in question was lawful, but that there were also several missteps that placed law enforcement in harm's way and led to a man’s death. 

The shooting itself happened in on Aug. 7. St. Pete police officers responded to a call at the French Quarter North Condominiums around 9 p.m. over a dispute between two neighbors.  

Officer Alison Savarese arrived at the scene with her partner. Several neighbors informed the officers of ongoing behavioral issues with 55-year-old Jeffrey Haarsma, including a threatening email sent the day before. They asked the officers to do something about him. 

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Haarsma was accused of throwing a neighbor's plastic patio furniture into a dumpster. The officers decided to press charges for petit theft. Savarese's partner left the scene, investigators said. While there, alone, Savarese attempted to arrest Haarsma. 

However, officials said Harsma became violent. The two fought, and Haarsma began choking her. In response, and out of fear for her life, the St. Pete Police Department said officer Savarese grabbed her gun and fired twice. 

Haarsma was pronounced dead when he arrived at a hospital.

The 16-page task force review found the shooting justified, but also uncovered evidence of a lengthy and well-documented history of Haarsma's interactions with St. Pete police due to mental health issues. 

LINK: Mobile users, click here to read the task force report

In 2017, Haarsma had been Baker Acted by the agency and, according to the report, acted violently towards responding officers. The police department had also responded to Haarsma's apartment two dozen times since 2017. Gualtieri said, given this history, one that both responding officers confirmed they were aware of, the call on Aug. 7 should’ve been handled as a mental health call, not a criminal matter.  

“This was a failure two years ago, meaning the system failed this gentleman,” Holloway said.  

He said one failure is that the 911 computer in the officer’s cruiser didn’t flag Haarsma’s mental issues history and previous 911 calls. 

Sheriff Gualtieri also wrote that officer Savarese had no legal authority to try to arrest Haarsma, and should not have tried to detain him without waiting for backup. 

“They knew they were dealing with someone who was having an obvious mental break,” Haarsma’s sister Debra said. “If the officers had been trained appropriately, my brother would still be alive."

The report is the result of the first investigation conducted by Pinellas' new Use of Deadly Force Task Force, which was formed earlier this summer in response to nationwide protests over police brutality and calls for reform.

The investigation was carried out by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, Clearwater and Pinellas Park police departments. 

A separate state attorney's office investigation also found officer Savarese to have acted lawfully.