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Deputies back on street in days after trauma of shootings

On March 15, 2008, Marino Ramos was executed by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy.

The deputy, Samuel Peixoto, shot Ramos seven times while he was passed out in the passenger seat of his friend’s minivan.

Then, investigators believe, Peixoto made it look like Ramos attacked him. He took out a knife, stabbed himself in the forearm five times, drawing blood, and tossed the knife into the van.

Of 45 PBSO fatal shootings in 15 years, the killing of Marino Ramos was the only one found to be unjustified.

It was unusual in another way: It was the most avoidable.

When he killed Ramos, he was still being investigated for a shooting four months earlier, when he fired 12 rounds blindly into the woods at a burglary call, then waited more than two hours before telling his supervisor.

At many other agencies, Peixoto would have been placed on paid leave or light duty until an internal affairs investigation cleared him.

But that’s not the way things work at PBSO. Peixoto, like other deputies who shoot, was back on the streets within days.

The department didn’t decide whether his shots into the woods were a justified use of force until six months later: They weren’t.

But that was two months too late for Marino Ramos.

It was also nine days after Peixoto killed himself.

Experts contacted by The Palm Beach Post were shocked that PBSO doesn’t finish its investigations before returning deputies to the street.

Dennis Root, a former Martin County Sheriff’s Office deputy and a national expert on police use of force, called it “disturbing.”

“If you are involved in a shooting, you should remain on modified duty until you are cleared,” he said. In its 2013 review, the Justice Department criticized the Miami Police Department because officers’ leave was “very brief.”

But Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said it isn’t realistic for his deputies to be off the streets until the investigation is finished.

“I could have somebody out for six months,” he said.

Instead, if a psychologist clears the deputy and internal affairs investigators don’t immediately notice any “red flags,” the deputy can return to work, he said.

Trauma for officers

PBSO’s practice is not unusual. West Palm Beach police and the Broward Sheriff’s Office also return deputies to work before the investigation is finished.

But other departments, including agencies in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Portland, Ore., wait to return officers to the street for two reasons: to ensure that the officer isn’t a problem and to give the officer time to recuperate from a traumatic experience.

“You don’t know if they’ve done something wrong,” said Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee officer and now a law professor at the University of South Carolina. “If they have, you don’t want them to be in an situation where they repeat it, intentionally or unintentionally.”

At PBSO, officers’ leave can be very brief.

After deputy Marco Flores shot an unarmed man sleeping in his car in 2009, he was cleared to return within days. The investigation was finished 10 months later.

After deputy Adams Lin shot an unarmed man holding a cellphone in 2013, he was cleared to return within four days. The investigation was finished almost five months later.

Shootings can cost deputies dearly, even in cases where no one would question the use of force.

After deputies shot and killed a man who had fired on them with a rifle in 2012, one of them was later diagnosed and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

A supervisor had recommended he seek help after noticing that the normally outgoing officer was withdrawn and “run down.”

Vincent Tuzeo, a former PBSO deputy who was charged and acquitted after shooting and killing a man in 1993, described the aftermath of a shooting for officers.

“It’s like a swing of emotions,” he said. “You’re scared, you’re trying to control your fear and your anger and your emotions, and then all of a sudden it’s a big letdown and you’re sad. … Now you’re sitting there going, ‘Oh my God, this is real. This is something I’m going to have to live with, and his family’s going to have to live with.’ And you start thinking, I hope that he doesn’t have any kids. I hope that he doesn’t have a wife and a family like I do. You start thinking on a personal level.”

One National Institute of Justice-sponsored study showed that after a shooting, half of officers had trouble sleeping and a quarter admitted to crying.

Brother had jumped off 11th floor

In Peixoto’s case, PBSO had multiple warning signs that he might have been in crisis.

Six months before his first shooting, Peixoto’s younger brother, Sonny, bludgeoned his girlfriend to death and committed suicide by jumping from the 11th floor of a downtown West Palm Beach condominium.

It’s unknown whether Samuel Peixoto received any counseling following his brother’s death.

But in his first shooting, it was immediately clear that something was wrong.

On Nov. 5, 2007, he was dispatched to a burglary call at a nursery on Lantana Road near Florida’s Turnpike, police records show.

While he walked around the back of the business, Peixoto said he heard a rustling and saw a “muzzle flash” coming from the woods. He said he never saw a suspect, but fired four times into the woods. Then he took cover and fired eight more times.

Two deputies on the other side of the property heard the shots and took cover behind their car. They didn’t know that Peixoto was the one shooting.

More than two hours elapsed before the department learned that the gunshots came from Peixoto. He asked a lieutenant whether a lawyer from the Police Benevolent Association had arrived. A union lawyer typically responds to officer-involved shooting scenes.

Puzzled, the lieutenant asked why. That’s when Peixoto reported that he had fired his gun.

A suspect was found in the woods that night, but he was unarmed. A detective speculated that the “muzzle flash” Peixoto saw was the light atop a cellphone tower behind the woods. Peixoto later acknowledged that he’d never seen a person or a threat before firing the eight extra rounds.

Internal affairs saw no “red flags” that would prevent Peixoto from returning to the street.

Despite their policy returning deputies to the streets, Bradshaw said it wouldn’t have prevented Ramos’ death.

At most, Peixoto would have been suspended for five days and returned to the street. Even though his use of force was later deemed reckless, he couldn’t be fired for it, Bradshaw said.

“In the scheme of things, that’s a minor policy violation,” he said. “It’s not an offense that unqualifies him to be a deputy sheriff.”

That would change if one of the rounds hit an innocent person, he added.

“If he fired into those woods and struck somebody in there, like a bum that was sleeping, he’s gone. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.

Stoughton disagreed that the shooting was a “minor policy violation.”

“It deserves severe discipline, perhaps even termination, both for the incredibly bad judgment demonstrated in this incident and for violating one of the fundamental tenets of firearm use: be sure of your target and what’s behind it,” he said.

“And when you’re shooting blindly into the woods, you don’t know what your target is, much less what’s behind it.”

Waiting to report a shooting is dangerous, since police could hear shots, think they’re being shot at and return fire, he said.

“That is so far beyond good police tactics that I have trouble processing it,” he said.

Investigation without the basics

The internal affairs investigation was still missing the basics when Peixoto killed Ramos. Records show the investigator hadn’t obtained Peixoto’s last firearms qualification. Investigators typically acquire the qualification immediately after a shooting, records show.

In Ramos’ death, basic questions remain unanswered, such as why Peixoto killed him.

Peixoto had pulled over the minivan Ramos was riding in, suspecting the driver was drunk. The deputy handcuffed the driver and put him in the back of his patrol car, then went to check on Ramos.

From there, things are unclear. Peixoto walked to the passenger’s side of the van. He said Ramos lunged at him with a knife and stabbed him in his left forearm multiple times, prompting him to shoot.

There were no witnesses. The driver of the van couldn’t see from the backseat of the patrol car.

But Peixoto couldn’t answer basic questions. He couldn’t say how Ramos ended up on the pavement. He didn’t remember what, if anything, was said between them. And he couldn’t say why he didn’t simply back away from the van after he was stabbed.

A retired forensic examiner later said Peixoto’s five stab wounds appeared to be self-inflicted. The knife was dusted for fingerprints and turned up only one: Peixoto’s.

The state attorney’s office planned to charge him. Peixoto found out, and he poured gasoline on his car and in his apartment, lit them on fire and shot himself in the head.

Nine days later, Bradshaw signed off on the findings of internal affairs investigations for both shootings: the uses of force was not justified.

The department settled a lawsuit with Ramos’ estate for $300,000.

Bradshaw, who believes Peixoto “panicked” and staged the scene, mentions the case as an example of one in which a deputy would have been held accountable for a shooting.

It’s the only fatal shooting the department has deemed not justified since at least 2000.

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