Police shootings: Deputies shielded by the badge


Post database editors Michele Quigley, Melanie Mena and Kavya Sukumar contributed to this story.

PBSO policy on shooting into moving cars

  • Firing a weapon at a moving vehicle is prohibited, except when the employee reasonably believes that:

 

An occupant of a vehicle is using or threatening to use deadly force by means other than the vehicle; or

A vehicle is operated in a manner intended to strike an employee and/or citizen and all other reasonable and available means of defense have been exhausted (including moving out of the path of the vehicle) and the safety of innocent persons would not be unduly jeopardized by the employee’s actions.

  • An employee will not create circumstances where the use of deadly force becomes necessary, absent exigent circumstances.
  • An employee will not create circumstances where the use of deadly force becomes necessary by intentionally placing his vehicle into the path of a suspect’s vehicle, absent exigent circumstances.
  • An employee threatened by an oncoming vehicle will make a reasonable effort to move out of its path instead of discharging a firearm at it or any of its occupants, absent exigent circumstances.

 

What The Post Found

 Jamil Murray attacked a deputy with a knife.

That’s why the deputy had to shoot and kill him.

So says Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw.

There’s one problem, though: Murray never attacked.

So says the deputy who killed him.

Since 2000, the agency’s deputies have shot and killed 45 people and wounded 38 others. The sheriff and his investigators found nothing wrong in all but one of the fatal shootings.

To do that, 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, a sweeping investigation by The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 has found.

By not holding deputies to account, they’ve created an atmosphere that endangers the public and deputies themselves and erodes the trust of the people they protect.

While many shootings were unquestionably justified, The Post investigation confirmed what critics have been saying for years: Many PBSO shootings didn’t have to happen.

Even before recent police shootings captured national attention, The Post teamed up with the area’s largest TV news station to track every officer-involved shooting in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast since 2000. Reporters spent a year creating a detailed database of 256 shootings in which 86 people were killed by officers in 32 police departments that operate locally. Many of the shootings, such as Murray’s, received scant media attention.

PBSO, with 1,600 deputies patrolling an area with 770,000 residents, is by far the largest department and involved in the most shootings — 123.

And their actions reveal disturbing patterns — ones that have attracted Department of Justice scrutiny elsewhere, and ones that PBSO never examine.

One of every four people shot at over the past 15 years was unarmed, for example. More than one-third were black.

Immediately after a shooting, Bradshaw is often quick to justify deputies’ actions at the scene, and his internal investigators produce reports and findings that back his statements. If evidence goes against deputies, investigators often gloss over it or leave it out of their reports. They rely heavily on the shooter’s story, even at times when it conflicts with video or witnesses.

The results: Since 2000, only one deputy has lost his job, and no deputy has been criminally charged for an on-duty shooting. In fact, in those 15 years, sheriff’s investigators have found only 12 shootings to be unjustified uses of force.

Since taking office in 2005, Bradshaw has revamped many of PBSO’s policies and investigations to bring them up to national standards. He requires deputies to walk through shootings at the scene with investigators, for example, and is giving deputies new training. The agency hasn’t had an on-duty shooting since November, the longest stretch in eight years.

But he almost never finds that his deputies did anything wrong.

He acknowledged that his investigators have left critical information out of reports, such as why the shooting was justified and didn’t violate policy. But that wouldn’t have changed the outcome, he insisted.

And ultimately, he said, shootings come down to obeying deputies’ commands.

“There’s a very simple equation here — works every time,” he said. “Do you want to know what that is? Comply, then complain.”

Except The Post found shootings where deputies never gave commands or shot even when people were obeying commands.

They include a case where a deputy shot a man asleep in his car in his own driveway and others in which innocent bystanders were shot.

Also: Jamil Murray, who according to a witness was doing what the deputy told him to do, police records show.

‘Strong, objective evidence’

The Post’s analysis revealed the kinds of troubling trends at PBSO that have prompted the Justice Department to intervene in other police departments:

  • PBSO’s rate of shooting at unarmed people, 25 percent, is much higher than other cities. At the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department it was 12 percent, and at the Philadelphia Police Department, 15 percent — two agencies in which federal authorities have intervened in recent years.
  • Deputies have disproportionately shot at black people, particularly young men. Although they make up 15 percent of people in the area PBSO patrols, they’ve been shot at more than twice that rate — 35 percent. Nearly a third of them were unarmed.
  • Deputies rarely try non-deadly force options, such as Tasers or batons, before shooting. It’s only happened in eight shootings since 2000.
  • They’ve had many shootings into moving vehicles. It’s a dangerous practice that the DOJ has cracked down on in other departments. It doesn’t stop drivers, and a wounded driver can careen into bystanders. Bradshaw restricted such shootings in 2005, but they’ve happened 16 times since, leaving three people dead and 11 others injured. Only one, an incident involving an off-duty deputy not related to policing, resulted in discipline.

 

As police departments across the country have learned over the years, particularly in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Mo., frequent or reckless use of force by police can ignite community unrest like nothing else.

That’s one reason attorney and former prosecutor Jack Scarola petitioned DOJ to investigate PBSO’s uses of force last year.

“There has to be a recognition of the difficult job that law enforcement officers face,” he said recently. “And were I supervising a staff of law enforcement officers, I would give them the benefit of the doubt with regard to any questions that arose concerning allegations of misconduct.

“But this has gone far beyond giving law enforcement officers the benefit of the doubt, because there is strong, objective evidence that cannot be ignored that resolves all doubts and clearly indicates there is significant misconduct.”

The Post’s findings support his petition, he said.

“They bother me,” he said of the findings. “I can’t tell you they surprise me. They are disturbing statistics.”

Officers make mistakes

Over the past two decades, police chiefs and watchdogs across the country have changed the conversation on police shootings.

The law allows police to use deadly force when “objectively reasonable.” It’s a broad interpretation and for good reason. Officers are not robots. Judges have acknowledged that they make mistakes and shouldn’t be charged with a crime when they shoot a suspect wielding a BB gun that looks like a real gun, for example.

Just because a shooting is legal, however, doesn’t mean it had to happen, experts say.

Yes, many shootings require officers to make split-second decisions in life-or-death situations, especially when the suspect is armed with a gun.

But often, police have time on their side. They just don’t use it.

Progressive departments have started training officers to fight their instincts in some situations: Don’t blindly run after a suspect. Don’t needlessly escalate a situation. Retreat, take cover and ask for backup.

Bradshaw recognizes that tactics and training can protect both residents and deputies. He has changed policies to limit shootings. He’s training all deputies to take a “tactical pause” — a way to evaluate a situation before rushing in headlong.

“I think there are some situations that, if we would have tactically done things a little bit better, that maybe the outcome would have been different,” he said.

And just this month, in response to a series of questions from The Post, Bradshaw started requiring deputies to report whenever they point a gun at someone. Although DOJ calls such reporting a best practice, few departments in the country do it.

But those efforts haven’t quelled what many in the community see as a growing problem that PBSO hasn’t adequately addressed.

PBSO shootings peaked with 15 in 2009, but in the past five years, PBSO shootings haven’t dropped, averaging eight per year, and the shootings continue to be controversial. Ten of 45 shot at since 2010 were unarmed.

“In even talking to folks in the community, there’s a sense that it’s certainly something that has increased,” said Carey Haughwout, the county’s public defender. “I think it has everybody concerned.”

Bradshaw quick to justify

When deputies shoot, the agency bends over backward to clear officers, in some cases downplaying facts or ignoring them to cast the officer in the best possible light, The Post found.

And it starts with Bradshaw.

When deputy Adams Lin shot an unarmed bicyclist in 2013, mistaking 20-year-old Dontrell Stephens’ cellphone for a gun, Bradshaw went to the scene and was quick to publicly justify the shooting.

He said the deputy did the right thing because Stephens wasn’t complying with the deputy’s commands to raise his hands.

“There’s nothing in the rules of engagement that says we have to put our lives in jeopardy to wait and find out what this is and get killed,” Bradshaw said at the scene.

But there was a problem. Stephens wasn’t given much time to comply with the orders.

Lin shot him within four seconds of stepping out of his patrol car, dashboard camera video reveals.

The department’s internal affairs report never mentioned Lin’s commands, which can’t be heard on the video. The investigator never asked Lin about the discrepancy, either.

He said it was justified, and Bradshaw signed off on that conclusion five months after the shooting.

Stephens is now paralyzed from the waist down.

Bradshaw couldn’t discuss the shooting because it’s under litigation. But he said he doesn’t believe that his statements influence his investigators.

When he gets to a scene, he gets an initial briefing from them, and that’s what he relays to the news media, he said. In cases that he believes are clear cut, he’ll relay that.

“I’m very straight forward. … I will say what I know. I will say what I think,” he said.

Because his information is coming from investigators, “I don’t believe I’m steering this investigation one way or the other,” he said.

Experts say that such statements could only prejudice an investigation.

“It’s very difficult for an internal affairs investigator to write a report that could go against what your department has already said,” said Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee police officer who is now a law professor at the University of South Carolina. “You don’t want to embarrass your agency or contradict your boss.”

Grossly deficient probes

The Post found many examples of misleading or grossly deficient internal affairs investigations.

Nowhere are they more apparent than in cases where deputies fired into moving vehicles. Although internal affairs investigators’ sole task is to identify policy violations, they never mention in their reports the policy that largely prohibit deputies from shooting into moving vehicles.

When deputy Jason Franqui shot Jeremy Hutton, a 17-year-old with Down syndrome who had taken his mother’s minivan for a low-speed joyride in 2010, Franqui said he fired into the moving minivan at a busy Royal Palm Beach intersection because the teen drove at him with an intent to kill.

Video from a street camera verified Franqui’s statement, the internal affairs investigator wrote in his report.

But that video, along with video and audio from the deputy’s dashboard camera, show the opposite: Hutton was driving away from Franqui when Franqui fired six rounds.

The physical evidence shows it, too. Franqui’s rounds went into the side and back of Hutton’s minivan, indicating it was driving away.

But that went unmentioned in the report, along with the fact that two other rounds went into a passing motorist’s vehicle.

Bradshaw acts as if the policy against shooting into cars is merely a guideline and says violations are better dealt with through retraining instead of discipline.

The policy allows for shooting into cars in “exigent circumstances.” In all but one of those 16 cases since 2006, after Bradshaw changed the policy, exigent circumstances applied each and every time, Bradshaw said. The lone finding came against deputy James Seigfried who was meeting a male prostitute off duty. He shot and wounded the prostitute as he fled.

And while those “exigent circumstances” are not mentioned in any of the internal affairs investigations, Bradshaw said the officer only had to do one thing: fear for his life.

The bias toward clearing officers bears out in the numbers. Since 2000, the agency has justified all but 12 shootings, a 90 percent clearance rate. And those 12 were under unusual circumstances: eight were accidental shootings, in which only one person was injured; two were off-duty deputies; and two were ruled unjustified only after the deputy killed himself.

Since 2010, the clearance rate is 100 percent.

The DOJ would almost certainly consider those numbers unrealistically high.

The Miami Police Department had an 87 percent clearance rate. The DOJ considered that rate so unrealistic that it was a central factor in determining in 2013 that Miami police were using “unconstitutionally excessive deadly force.”

To Bradshaw, the high clearance rate is a sign that deputies are doing things properly.

And he has faith in his internal affairs investigators, who he said exhaustively probe each case.

“They’re not just whitewashing these things,” he said. “They’re not just showing (up) and going, ‘It’s going to be OK’ from the beginning.”

No one keeps track

When The Post and WPTV set out to learn when, where and why shootings happen, they quickly hit a wall: No local, state or federal agency is required to track police shootings.

The agencies themselves don’t adequately keep track of their shootings. Hardly any, including PBSO, could produce records for every shooting on the first try.

In Cleveland, DOJ harshly criticized police for not having shooting records readily available, questioning how the department could be analyzing its shootings.

At PBSO, the answer to that question is simple: It hasn’t done any in-depth analyses of its shootings.

The Post did, and the data provides some insight into the events.

Most people shot at, for example, have criminal records. But they’re unlikely to hurt police. Since 2000, suspects have struck seven PBSO deputies with their vehicle and shot two other deputies. None of the deputies suffered life-threatening injuries.

No PBSO deputy has been killed by a suspect since 1993.

At least 11 percent of the people shot at by PBSO are mentally ill. But the actual percentage is probably higher: Reports often don’t mention whether or not the person was mentally ill.

Although roughly half of PBSO’s deputies have been trained in “crisis intervention” to better deal with mentally ill people, the agency provides them no follow-up training — a critical oversight that experts and the Justice Department have highlighted in other agencies. Bradshaw says they’re developing a program to recertify them.

When deputies shoot, they usually miss. They average five shots per incident, but hit their target only 30 percent of the time. Although deputies are required to train with their weapon only once per year, that accuracy rate is about average compared with other agencies where data exist.

And the ethnic makeup of deputies who shoot is relatively in line with the department’s makeup. White and black deputies have shot at a slightly lower rate and Hispanic deputies have shot at a slightly higher rate.

Repeat offenders

The Post found PBSO’s problems go beyond individual deputies and point to larger cultural problems within the agency.

Several shootings could have been avoided if the leadership took action against problem deputies, who make up a small but notable percentage of those who shoot:

  • In 2008, deputy Samuel Peixoto shot unarmed Guatemalan immigrant Marino Ramos seven times, then stabbed himself to make it look like he had been attacked. Peixoto was still under investigation for another shooting four months earlier, in which he fired 12 rounds blindly into the woods then waited hours to report it. Internal affairs investigators didn’t find that troubling enough to keep him off the streets, though. Both shootings were ruled unjustified nine days after Peixoto killed himself.
  • Last year, deputy Russell Brinson shot a man during a foot chase, saying the suspect turned toward him with a gun. He was probably trying to get rid of it — the gun was later found on the other side of a fence. PBSO had received many warnings about Brinson. During a 20-month stretch, he’d been involved in a stunning 18 uses of force. In two of those, his fellow deputies complained that his actions were excessive, such as when Brinson put a chokehold on a man to make him unconscious. Two deputies said Brinson smiled and seemed to take joy in it.
  • No shooting in recent years has been more controversial than the 2012 death of Seth Adams, the unarmed man killed on his own property by undercover Sgt. Michael Custer. While many facts are in dispute, one isn’t: Custer’s supervisors and underlings considered him wholly incompetent for his elite job supervising a tactical team. An evaluation the year before was brutal, describing him as a stubborn supervisor who had “difficulty assessing critical incidents and making sound decisions under pressure.” But Custer was protected by PBSO’s second-in-command, Mike Gauger. He complained to Gauger, who made Custer’s supervisor revise the evaluation, and Custer kept his assignment. He was working that job the night he killed Adams.

 

Shooter suffers too

For some deputies, shootings take a heavy toll.

The last officer to be charged for an on-duty shooting in Palm Beach County was Vincent Tuzeo, who as a PBSO rookie in 1993 fired 16 rounds into a pickup driven by William Dawson, killing him. Dawson had burglarized a convenience store and rammed Tuzeo’s car when he was trying to get away.

Dawson then drove toward another officer, and Tuzeo felt he had to stop him.

He was charged — and acquitted — of manslaughter in the high-profile case and returned to work. But his life was never the same.

The shooting destroyed his marriage. He soon left PBSO because he couldn’t shake his reputation.

And he thinks about Dawson, and Dawson’s then-young family, every day. Like Dawson, Tuzeo had a young daughter at the time.

He doesn’t regret shooting and still feels it was necessary. But he grapples with taking a life.

“I hope my message gets to the family that I am sorry,” he said recently. “I have prayed. I have asked for forgiveness from God. … I want them to understand that it was an unfortunate situation and something that I hope that they can forgive me for.”

He’s since had a successful career at the Miami Beach Police Department, where he still works.

‘No, sir, I don’t have a gun’

For families, the agency’s initial statements and reports are another burden to bear on top of losing a loved one.

Jamil Murray had a problem with a bully and carried his mother’s chef knife to protect himself. But that knife would endanger him when he met up with a deputy later that day.

The bully had flagged down off-duty deputy Donald Smith in front of a West Palm Beach grocery store and told him Murray had a gun. Murray told Smith he didn’t have a gun. When he pulled the knife from his waist band, the deputy shot him twice and killed him.

Bradshaw quickly justified the shooting.

“The deputy took action that he had to take to keep this individual from coming forward and stabbing him,” Bradshaw told the media at the scene.

Murray’s family didn’t believe it.

“When I got to the emergency room, that’s when I found out that a police shot him, and (an officer) said that he came at him with a knife,” Murray’s stepfather, Audie Wilson, recalled recently. “The first thing out of my mouth was: That’s a lie.”

His stepson wasn’t a troublemaker, he said.

“He was always pleasant … always respectful,” he said. “And I ain’t (just) saying that — you know when everybody dies, everybody says he’s a good guy. No. I’m saying this because it’s a fact. If he was a creep, I’d say, ‘Hey, he had a bad side.’ But I can’t say that about Jamil.”

The internal affairs report described what happened in 153 words.

It didn’t mention the bully, or the fact that the bully kept yelling at Smith to “watch him, don’t let him shoot you,” raising his fear, the deputy testified.

It also left out the statement of the grocery store’s 52-year-old bookkeeper, who witnessed everything.

She told police that when the deputy stopped Murray and asked him if he had a gun, Murray responded, “No, sir. I don’t have a gun.”

Smith then asked Murray to lift up his shirt, the bookkeeper told police.

Murray complied, lifting up his shirt and saying, “This is what I — ” before Smith shot him, she told police.

The internal affairs investigator, with Bradshaw’s approval, found nothing wrong.

“His furtive movements caused deputy Smith to fear for his safety,” the investigator wrote.

The state attorney investigator’s report is more thorough, but was inconsistent on basic facts; Murray and Smith were either 20 or 25 feet apart during the shooting, depending on what paragraph you read.

Then-Chief Assistant State Attorney Paul Zacks justified the shooting because Murray “refused to comply” with Smith’s commands and “suddenly reached under his shirt” and pulled out a knife.

Zacks’ decision letter doesn’t mention the bookkeeper’s statement. His investigator, a former PBSO deputy, glossed over the fact that she said the deputy asked Murray to lift his shirt.

Smith lived in the neighborhood and was known to sell barbecue, according to Murray’s lawyer, Kevin Anderson. He doesn’t believe Smith “maliciously” killed Murray.

In a deposition for the lawsuit five years later, Smith was distraught. The shooting still haunted him.

“Oh God,” he said. “I just wish …”

He remembered Murray curled into a fetal position on the pavement.

“He was in a lot of pain,” Smith told Anderson. “Just telling me, ‘It’s burning, I’m burning, it’s burning.’”

He said later, “I just been trying to — to be perfectly honest, I’m just trying to get all of this, like, out of my head.”

But he did clarify a few things. He didn’t mistake Murray’s knife for a gun, an excuse Bradshaw continues to suggest, and Murray never attacked him.

“I said if you pull that shirt, you better pull it up slow,” Smith said in the deposition. “And then all of a sudden the suspect with his left hand pulled the shirt up, he pulled a knife out and in the process of doing that, he said, ‘I don’t have a gun.’… and when he pulled the knife out, he just turned toward me and when he turned, I just yelled ‘No,’ and I fired.”

Murray’s stepfather, Wilson, whose brother is a retired police officer, doesn’t believe police are bad.

He just wants them to admit when they’ve made mistakes.

“We need law enforcement,” he said. “And I don’t want to be a part of trying to destroy law enforcement. We need them, because there’s some bad dudes out here.

“But Jamil wasn’t one of them.”

 

Explore your police agency

Palm Beach County has more than two dozen police agencies patrolling within its boundaries. The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 pieced together and analyzed shootings from all of them. Plus we added some facts about each agency and the area it patrols, including the number of officers and comparative population by race.

 

Agency bars & profiles
Medium
Small

 

Sources: The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 research; Florida Department of Law Enforcement, 2014 Criminal Justice Agency Profile Report; U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

Notes: Population, race and gender of officers employed by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and the number of deputy shootings are available for the agency as a whole only, not for districts that serve specific communities. FAU's population is an estimate based on actual student population at the Boca Raton campus plus estimated faculty and staff population.

Post database editors Michele Quigley, Melanie Mena and Kavya Sukumar contributed to this story.



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