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.

 

Family of Dontrell Stephens, shot by PBSO, creates fundraising site


Can’t see this video? Click here.

It’s been nearly two years since Dontrell Stephens was shot and paralyzed by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy.

But he’s only been out of physical rehabilitation for about a month and a half, and now his family is asking for help finding the wheelchair-bound 22-year-old permanent housing.

Stephens’ cousin, Karen, created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money. As of Tuesday evening, it had collected $3,325 toward its modest $5,000 goal.

“He was supposed to find a place but it’s very difficult when he doesn’t have any income,” Karen Stephens said Tuesday. “He really is, essentially, homeless.”

Dontrell Stephens was shot by Deputy Adams Lin in September 2013 after he was stopped while riding his bike.

The incident, which was partially captured on video, showed that Lin shot him four seconds after stopping him. Lin said he thought Stephens was reaching toward his waistband as if he had a gun.

Stephens was unarmed, holding only a cell phone. Lin’s four bullets left him paralyzed from the waist down, and video from the incident received national attention this year.

Lin was cleared in the shooting and was recently promoted to sergeant.

Stephens went to a physical rehabilitation center near Orlando after his release from the hospital. Since he left rehab, he’s been living in an extended stay hotel in West Palm Beach, Karen Stephens said.

His lawyer, Jack Scarola, confirmed Dontrell Stephens’ situation. He said that Stephens was supposed move into an apartment with his mother but his mother never got an apartment.

Although Stephens and Scarola are suing PBSO in federal court, Scarola said legal ethics forbid him from paying his client’s rent.

“We are not in a position to provide him the kind of help he needs, and I wish we could,” Scarola said. “He is one of those people who has most definitely fallen through the cracks.”

Karen Stephens said her cousin has not yet been able to find a job but is receiving a small amount of money for his disability from the Social Security Administration. It’s not enough for him to live on, she and Scarola said.

She’s collecting just $5,000 to cover a few months of rent for Dontrell, she said. Other family members are trying to help as they can.

“No one can do everything all the time (for him),” she said. “People try to help as they can. It’s just a handful of us in the family that are able to do it.”

Stephens’ stint in rehab cost “a few hundred thousand dollars,” Scarola said, but he hasn’t had to pay for it yet.

“They agreed to provide rehab services for Dontrell, with the understanding they would be paid out of the litigation,” he said of the facility.

Despite his situation, Scarola said Stephens is doing well, thanks to the support of his family.

Outside police group to spend more than 4 months reviewing PBSO

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office will pay $100,000 for a police think tank to review its internal affairs department and its investigations into shootings.

As part of the deal, six experts with the Police Executive Research Forum will spend months interviewing PBSO staff, comparing the department’s policies to “best practices” and hosting six focus groups to get the public’s input.

At the end of their study, estimated to take about 4 1/2 months, the group will release its findings and recommendations for improvement, according to the contract, signed in May. The PERF team is expected to start late this month, according to a PBSO spokeswoman.

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw asked PERF for help after a joint investigation by The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 revealed in April that the agency’s investigations into shootings were often inadequate.

The investigation found that PBSO’s internal investigators skew or ignore evidence that could be critical of the shooting deputy and often don’t question a deputy’s statement, even when facts show the deputy didn’t tell the truth. Their reports were also found to leave out basic information, such as how many shots the deputy fired and whether the suspect lived.

Over the agency’s 123 shootings by deputies since 2000, it found only 12 went against department policy.

Bradshaw didn’t dispute the investigation’s findings but said that even if internal investigators’ reports were more thorough, the shootings still would have been found justified.

PERF is a respected think-tank in the world of policing, and the U.S. Department of Justice often contracts with them to help reform police departments.

The group will be looking into many aspects of the county’s largest police department, according to the contract, including:

  • How the agency handles complaints by civilians.
  • How it reviews uses of force by deputies.
  • The department’s policies.
  • How its internal investigators are trained.

PERF will hold six community focus groups “to determine community expectations about PBSO internal administrative investigations,” the contract states.

The dates for those groups have not been announced. The Post will publish them as soon as they’re released.

 

 

PBSO deputy who shot, paralyzed unarmed bicyclist Dontrell Stephens given promotion

Adams Lin, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy who was captured on video shooting an unarmed bicyclist in 2013, was recently promoted to sergeant.

He also has a new assignment: field training, where he works with new recruits.

The promotion comes two years after he shot and paralyzed 20-year-old Dontrell Stephens, four seconds after stopping the bicyclist and getting out of his patrol car.

Lin said Stephens didn’t comply with orders to raise his hands and reached into his back waistband, prompting him to shoot. Stephens had a cell phone in his hands. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

Most of the incident was captured on video. When The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 aired it in May, it quickly went viral, getting the attention of national media.

PBSO cleared Lin of any wrongdoing in the incident.

Before being promoted, Lin was assigned to community policing. He was the department’s 2010-11 Community Policing Deputy of the Year.

Stephens has sued Lin and PBSO in federal court.

Sheriff keeps cool, welcomes “legitimate conversation” about PBSO shootings

As my Texas granddaddy would have said right about now, “It’s all over but the shoutin’.”

There was plenty in the recently published Palm Beach Post/NewsChannel Five investigation into PBSO shootings for Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to shout about.

READ: The full investigative report

In the last 15 years, one in four shootings were at unarmed individuals; unexpectedly large numbers of those being shot at were black; investigations into shootings were sometimes incomplete and haphazard, and deputies were almost always exonerated.

But speaking on Channel Five’s To The Point, Bradshaw rarely strayed from equanimity into irascibility.

“This has been a legitimate conversation,” he said of public reaction to the series.

That doesn’t mean he has embraced it. Painting a picture of unnecessary force at PBSO “is completely false,” he emphasized.

That includes the 2013 shooting of Dontrell Stephens. The bicyclist was shot and left paralyzed by a deputy who thought he saw a gun. Stephens was unarmed. Part of the shooting was caught on dashcam tape, part wasn’t.

Bradshaw’s take on the video: It didn’t catch what the deputy saw. “There were things he saw that alerted him to fear for his safety,” said Bradshaw.

That fierce defense of his deputies was also part of the Post/NewsChannel Five findings.  The sheriff frequently visits the scene of a deputy-involved shooting and almost invariably tells the news media the deputy acted correctly, long before the results of any formal investigation are in.

Bradshaw countered that in the 45 minutes or so it takes him to get to the scene, investigators with both PBSO and the state attorney’s office typically already have evidence indicating whether it was a good shoot.

Anyway, he added, the media are also there, chomping at the bit for a statement.

“I am always careful to say this is only what we know now,” said Bradshaw, who points to Ferguson, Missouri as a prime example of what happens when the police give out absolutely no information. Riots followed the shooting of Michael Brown when it looked like the police had pulled “a shroud of secrecy” over the fatal incident, he said.

And there’s plenty yet to talk about. Bradshaw says he welcomes it: “We’re going to have the conversation,” he said, “on both sides.”

Video: PBSO deputy describes shooting that left Dontrell Stephens paralyzed

A video of a PBSO deputy shooting an unarmed man within four seconds of stopping him in 2013 captured national attention last week.

Now a newly obtained video shows Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputy Adams Lin describing what caused him to shoot.

In the video, Lin says that Dontrell Stephens turned his body and reached toward his waistband as if he was going for a gun.

He didn’t have a gun; it was a cell phone that was in his right hand during the four-second encounter.

The video also shows how Lin, who was assigned to a community-oriented policing job, was dressed. Attorney Jack Scarola, who is representing Stephens in a federal lawsuit against PBSO, said Lin was “dressed for war,” carrying 76 rounds of ammunition.

He was dressed differently from most uniformed PBSO deputies, with a tactical vest carrying his ammunition and Taser. Those items are often carried on a belt.

Scarola released the video to the media on Friday.

Video of Stephens’ shooting came to light last week, when The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 published online the results of a yearlong investigation into police shootings. The reporting revealed that one in every four people shot at by deputies were unarmed, and one in every three people are black. Stephens is black. Lin is Asian.

In the wake of the investigation, Palm Beach County commissioner Priscilla Taylor called for independent investigations and a community symposium.

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

 

POST INVESTIGATION: Nearly one in three people shot at by Palm Beach County deputies are black

A yearlong investigation into police shootings by The Palm Beach Post and WPTV Channel 5 reveals some startling statistics: One in four people shot at by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office are unarmed, and nearly one in three are black.

But while the shootings have been highly controversial, PBSO almost never finds anything to fault.

Our investigation reveals PBSO’s internal investigators often rely solely on the deputy’s version of events, ignoring or downplaying conflicting evidence such as videos to justify deadly force, even when it seems apparent that the deputy violated agency protocol.

We’ve created a database of 256 shootings by 32 local agencies in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast dating to 2000. It’s never been done before here – not even by police themselves.

We’ve also uncovered never-before-seen videos the shootings that dispute police version of events, including the shooting of a 17-year-old boy with Down syndrome and the shooting of an unarmed 20-year-old four seconds after the deputy stopped him.

To read our series, click here.

Lawsuit: Palm Beach County deputy who shot Dontrell Stephens in 2013 had record of complaints

Even Jack Scarola, the lawyer representing Dontrell Stephens in a suit against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, doesn’t thinks Deputy Adams Lin intended to leave Stephens paralyzed.

In 2013, Lin shot Stephens four times after stopping him for riding his bicycle the wrong way across Haverhill Road. Captured on video, it’s one of more than 250 shootings detailed in a year-long investigative report by the Post’s Lawrence Mower and NewsChannel 5’s Katie LaGrone.

Lin thought Stephens was reaching for a gun. There was no weapon though. PBSO and the State Attorney’s office concluded Lin acted appropriately.

And he’s been cleared of other complaints as well, writes Scarola in the Stephens suit. But Scarola believes that’s a large part of the problem: that PBSO has been reluctant to mete out serious discipline.

Scarola is holding a press conference Friday at 4 p.m. to talk about the Stephens case and his views on PBSO, which he believes is becoming increasingly militaristic in its approach to policing.

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw can’t comment on the specifics of the suit, but in court filings, PBSO lawyers have emphatically defended his actions in the Stephens shooting.

From the Stephens lawsuit:

“Among the incidents described in LIN’s file are (i) an allegation that he conducted an illegal “stop and frisk” on a woman walking along the sidewalk by claiming that she was obstructing traffic, (ii) an allegation that he used excessive force, and used the N-word, while effecting the arrest of an African-American man, and (iii) an incident in which LIN fired his Taser at a man because of a perceived threat, LIN created a written report stating that he gave the man multiple commands to drop a rock in his right hand before deploying the Taser, the Taser-mounted video showed that LIN said “drop the rock” just one time, less than one second before firing the Taser, and LIN admitted to the discrepancies between his written report and the video but claimed that he was still justified in deploying the Taser.

“On those occasions, as on all occasions when LIN’s interaction with the public has been evaluated by a PBSO supervisor, LIN’s conduct was determined to be reasonable, justified, and/or consistent with PBSO policy.”

Further, wrote Scarola,

“On six separate occasions since May 2011, the PBSO Early Intervention System flagged LIN for having five or more use of force incidents in the preceding twelve months. On two occasions since March 2013, the Early Intervention System flagged LIN for having five or more incident reviews in the preceding twenty-four months.

“None of the Early Intervention System alerts, however, led to any additional training for LIN or any other disciplinary action. To the contrary, on the two occasions when PBSO supervisors wrote formal memoranda about LIN’s use of force alerts, they reiterated that LIN’s use of force was and justified “and onforms to existing General Orders.”