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.

 

PBSO Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, on video, sounds off on police shootings

Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw shared his harshest comments over recent criticism about his agency’s shootings with officers gathered at a recent Police Benevolent Association gala.

In a video for the event, Bradshaw blasted elected officials, the media and police chiefs across the country who bow to public pressure over deadly police encounters.

“As long as I’m in this office, and I hope to be there a little bit longer, I’m not backing up, and Channel 5 and The Post can take their best shot, because it’s not going to work,” he said.

Bradshaw was referring to The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5’s joint investigation “Line of Fire,” which documented all of the department’s 123 shootings since 2000 and found one in four people shot at were unarmed. The investigation also found the department’s internal investigations into shootings often lacked basic information, such as how many rounds the deputy fired.

The video was recorded for the PBA’s 8th Annual Police Officer’s Ball at Eau Palm Beach on June 13, and uploaded to the Dade County PBA’s Facebook page on July 9. Since Bradshaw couldn’t attend, he was asked to make a video addressing the troops, PBSO spokeswoman Teri Barbera said.

One of the people Bradshaw didn’t criticize in the video was Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who has been criticized as recently as Monday for not filing charges against officers who shoot.

“First of all, to my good friend Dave Aronberg, thank you for being one of those people that have stood up lately and been the person that’s been counted upon to do the right thing,” Bradshaw said.

No officer has been charged in a shooting in Palm Beach County since 1993. Aronberg took office in 2013. Among the officers he declined to indict was Adams Lin, who shot and paralyzed an unarmed man later that year, sparking national outrage.

In the video, Bradshaw said his political advisers have urged him “to find some common ground” with critics, since he’s running for re-election next year.

“For me, there is no common ground here,” he said. “I can be like some of the elected officials, I can be like some of the police officials, and tuck my tail between my legs and say, ‘Yeah, you know what, maybe we need to talk about this.’

“No. that’s not it. And I’m not going to back up. Because we have not done anything wrong. We have taken action when we need to take action.”

PBSO spokeswoman Teri Barbera said the message was meant to rally the officers in attendance. They gave it a standing ovation.

“Each speaker, including the sheriff, shared a motivating message with the troops,” she said in an email. “ALL received standing ovations, by the troops.”

One of the guest speakers was WPEC-TV CBS 12 News anchor Liz Quirantes. The black-tie event was attended by various elected officials, including West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio.

“I want everybody that’s in law enforcement to hold their head up high,” Bradshaw told them. “As far as I’m concerned, law enforcement in this county is as good as you can get.”

He described shootings as deputies simply responding to the actions of suspects.

“This is a simple equation,” he said. “If you don’t try to shoot us, if you don’t try to stab us, you don’t try to run over us with a car, and you don’t try to beat us up, then everything’s going to be fine.”

He added, “So why should we be apologetic? Why should we kowtow down? Why should we succumb to pressure from the outside, which is uncalled for, just because they think it’s wrong, when it’s not?”

In reaction to The Post and Channel 5’s investigation, Bradshaw started tracking how often deputies pull their guns on people. He’s also paying $100,000 for an outside group to review how the agency investigates itself.

In the video, Bradshaw urged the “silent majority” of officers and citizens who support police to “be unsilent.”

“They need to put their big boy pants on and be as vocal as the other people that say, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’ which is not even remotely the truth,” he said.

Disturbed by pattern of PBSO shootings, Commissioner Priscilla Taylor calls for independent review, community symposium

Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor said she is organizing a symposium of law enforcement officials and community leaders to find ways to reduce the “unnecessary” rate of shootings of unarmed civilians.

IMG_1149Taylor said she was spurred into hosting the symposium after reading about disturbing patterns of Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies in a joint investigation between The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5.

“From reading your article and seeing it on TV, I am going to convene a symposium to bring law enforcement to the table as well as people to the community. It is a serious issue and we don’t want it to fester here in Palm Beach County what is going on in the rest of the county,’’ Taylor said Friday afternoon.

Taylor also called for an independent review board to study some of the findings reported by the news organizations, including:

  • In roughly one of every four shootings, Palm Beach County deputies fired at unarmed suspects. The Department of Justice has found fault with departments who shot at unarmed suspects less frequently.
  • Deputies disproportionately shot at young black men, a third of whom were unarmed.
  • Non-deadly force options, such as Tasers or batons, were seldom used prior to shooting.
  • PBSO rarely found fault with a deputy’s decision to shoot, sometimes basing its decisions on cursory or incomplete investigations.

20120607_met_screengrabTaylor said she was particularly disturbed by a video showing a deputy stopping an unarmed black man who was riding a bike, then shooting him 4 seconds later as the man was running away from the deputy.

“It’s unnecessary and it’s just like what happening across the country,’’ she said. “Really, I think they need an outside citizen’s review board.’’

Taylor said the symposium will be held in May or June at the Palm Beach County Government Center in downtown West Palm Beach. She said the Delray Beach police department already told her it will send a high-ranking representative.

Her staff plans to send out formal invitations on Monday, including one to Sheriff Ric Bradshaw.

“Hopefully the sheriff himself will come,’’ she said. “We have avoided the conversation. I think we need to talk about.’’

Asked what she hopes the symposium will accomplish, Taylor said: “I hope the discussion will bring out some information that can be shared. It’s important for people in those positions to really hear what the community is saying and maybe come up with some idea to try to address that.’’

Read more about this investigation here: mypalmbeachpost.com/policeshootings