Outside group has started its investigation of PBSO

The Washington-based think tank hired by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office started its investigation into the department late last month.

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw is spending $100,000 for the Police Executive Research Forum to examine his department’s internal affairs unit and the unit’s investigations after The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 found the unit cleared all but one fatal shooting by a deputy in 16 years.

The team from PERF started July 28, and their six-member team could spend up to four months interviewing PBSO staff, comparing the department’s policies with “best practices” and hosting six focus groups to get public input. Their findings will be released in a public report.

Their first visit lasted four days. The dates for the focus groups have not been announced.

Police internal affairs units are tasked with investigating whether officers violate department policy, and their findings can lead to officers being disciplined or fired. They do not handle criminal investigations.

The Post-WPTV investigation found that some of the unit’s investigators would skew or ignore evidence that would appear unfavorable to deputies who shoot.

After deputy Jason Franqui shot 16-year-old Jeremy Hutton, who suffers from Down syndrome, in 2010, for example, investigators said video confirmed Franqui’s statement that he shot as Hutton was driving toward him in a minivan.

But the video actually shows the opposite: Franqui fired all six rounds while Hutton was driving away from him.

The investigators’ reports also often left out critical information. In Hutton’s case, the report didn’t mention that Franqui’s rounds went into the back of the minivan, or that two of the rounds went into a passing motorist’s vehicle.

Although PBSO has a strict policy against shooting into moving vehicles, investigators found nothing to fault in the shooting.

Bradshaw agreed that some of the unit’s reports were inadequate, and he said future reports into shootings will be more thorough.

But he said better reports wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the investigations.

Since 2000, the department has cleared all but 12 shootings, a 90 percent clearance rate, The Post found. Since 2010, the rate is 100 percent.

Lawyers for Dontrell Stephens, shot by PBSO, see charges as ‘vindictive’

Ten days after he was shot and paralyzed by a PBSO deputy in 2013, prosecutors charged Dontrell Stephens with cocaine possession and failing to obey a police officer.

But since then, the actions of police and prosecutors have led Stephens’ lawyers to believe that the charges are being used to retaliate against him.

“I absolutely believe this is a vindictive prosecution, that they’re only doing this … to justify what the officer did,” said Stephens’ criminal defense lawyer, Ian Goldstein. “It’s a disturbing case. This is probably the worst I’ve ever seen.”

READ: Palm Beach Post-WPTV Joint Investigation into Police Shootings in Palm Beach County

Dontrell Stephens is partly paralyzed after being shot by a Palm Beach County Sheriff's deputy.
Dontrell Stephens is partly paralyzed after being shot by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy.

Stephens was shot Sept. 13, four seconds after he was stopped by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputy Adams Lin. (Lin has since been promoted to sergeant.) Lin said Stephens disobeyed multiple orders to raise his hands, prompting him to shoot.

Stephens, who was immediately paralyzed by the gunfire, had a cell phone in his hand.

Police quickly found reasons to suspect Stephens of drug possession, according to records and a deposition of the case’s lead detective.

Paramedics at the scene cut off his clothes before taking him to St. Mary’s Medical Center. When PBSO investigators looked beneath the clothing, they found a vial of crack cocaine on the ground.

At St. Mary’s, a nurse found a small baggie of marijuana on the floor of the emergency room and handed it to a deputy.

Prosecutors decided to charge Stephens with possession of the cocaine vial, a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison.

But according to Det. Kenny Smith, the lead detective in the case, there was no real evidence, beyond circumstance, that the cocaine belonged to Stephens.

“It was underneath his clothing at the scene,” Smith said in a deposition for Stephens’ civil lawsuit last year. “So there’s a possibility that it’s not his.”

To try to bolster the department’s case against Stephens, Smith did something unusual: he sent the vial to PBSO’s lab to see if it contained Stephens’ DNA.

Smith told Stephens’ lawyers that it was the first time in his 14 years at PBSO that he’d sent a vial to the lab to test for DNA. DNA tests are expensive and time-consuming, with results often taking months.

According to Stephens’ lawyers, PBSO’s lab refused to test the vial since the charge was so minor. Instead, the lab sent it to a third party for testing.

It came back negative for Stephens’ DNA, and prosecutors dropped the charge.

But they didn’t give up on pinning a drug charge on Stephens. At that point, more than a year after the incident, the State Attorney’s Office decided to add a charge of marijuana possession, a misdemeanor.

But that charge seems even more flimsy.

Smith said in last year’s deposition that he didn’t try to charge Stephens with marijuana possession because he didn’t believe there was probable cause indicating it belonged to Stephens. He didn’t even bother sending it for DNA testing since a St. Mary’s nurse handed it over to a deputy.

Goldstein said the marijuana possession charge was absurd, especially since Stephens’ clothes had been cut off him at the scene, making it difficult for him to hide marijuana until he got to the hospital.

Stephens has pleaded not guilty to all charges and will not accept a plea deal, Goldstein said.

“He did not do anything wrong,” Goldstein said.

A request for comment from the State Attorney’s Office was not returned Thursday.

Goldstein and Jack Scarola, Stephens’ attorney in his federal civil case, believe the office’s aggressive prosecution is a sign that the case is personal for police and prosecutors.

“Those circumstances clearly reflect retaliatory action by the sheriff’s office against Dontrell,” Scarola said.