Boynton police bring in FBI, show beating video

The FBI and the state attorney’s office are investigating several Boynton Beach police officers who punched, kicked and used a Taser on three people after a 100 mph chase in August.

During a Tuesday news conference, Chief Jeffrey Katz said he asked the agencies in September to investigate after he saw a video of the incident, captured by a sheriff’s helicopter. It shows the Aug. 20 police chase and arrest of Byron Harris, 27, and two passengers.

During the pursuit, Harris struck Boynton Beach officer Jeff Williams and kept driving, police say. Williams then was struck by a pursuing officer.

The video shows Harris exiting Interstate 95 at Sixth Avenue South in Lake Worth with several police cars on his tail. He stops in a neighborhood and officers surround the car at gunpoint. The video shows they pulled two passengers out of the car — Ashley Hill, then 18, and Jeffrey Braswell, then 25.

The camera zooms in. It shows three officers kicking the passengers, with one running up and kicking the backseat passenger, Hill, in mid-stride. Then it abruptly pans to an empty section of street.

What happens next is unclear. The camera zooms out and returns to the scene but now the figures, captured with an infrared lens, are tiny white blobs viewed from a longer distance. At one point, while the helicopter hovers, officers appear to be repeatedly punching one of the suspects.

Katz said he learned of the video two days after the chase and asked the FBI and the state attorney’s office about two weeks later to compare the video with the officers’ statements. In their statements, the officers, who Katz said didn’t know the video existed, admit to punching and kicking the suspects in the head.

Many agencies consider such blows to be deadly force — the equivalent of shooting someone, in police terms — since punches and kicks to the head can kill.

But the punches and kicks were accidents, the reports state. Officer Matthew Madeiros said he tried to kick Harris in the arm, but twice missed and kicked him in the face. He also said he tried to stop Hill with his arm, but “her face struck my hand.”

Multiple officers said they used Tasers on the trio, also.

None of the seven officers who used force have been disciplined or suspended, although one of them, officer Stephen Maiorino, was accused of raping a woman last year and remains in jail.

Katz said the main question is, were the officers’ actions reasonable at the time? The video “provides no insight” into that question, he said.

“They are fearful, they are amped up, they are concerned for their own safety,” he said of the officers. “They’re approaching a car that they believed is occupied by people that just killed one of our officers.”

Proving which officers are on video could be difficult, though. The black-and-white recording doesn’t detail any officer’s face.

Katz said he has no reason to believe his officers broke police policy, partly because the suspects were resisting arrest to an “extreme” level. But he said he would leave the final decision to prosecutors.

Harris was charged with resisting arrest, among other charges, but the resisting charge was dropped. Hill and Braswell both pleaded down to obstruction charges and paid a $253 fine.

Harris’ mother, Charlene Edwards, said Tuesday that she was pleased to hear that the FBI was investigating.

“I love that the FBI’s looking into it,” she said. “All I want is the truth to come out and I want justice.”

Williams, who is still on light duty and undergoes physical therapy treatments, suffered critical injuries. Katz said his spine was broken in two places and had to be fused together. He lost a piece of one of his ears and his face is permanently disfigured.

“Medical personnel spent over two hours digging pieces of asphalt from his face and body,” Katz said.

Of the suspects, he said, their injuries were relatively minor.

“They had some tissue injury, from what I understand, maybe some shiners and some cuts and things of that nature, but I don’t believe they experienced any broken bones, certainly no broken back, no separated shoulders, nothing of that nature,” Katz said.

The pursuit started in Boynton Beach when Harris rolled through a stop sign about 2 a.m. An officer gave chase and saw Harris throw a bag of white powder out the window.

During the pursuit, Williams was laying out stop sticks to puncture the tires on Harris’ car. Police say Harris crossed all lanes and veered toward him, striking him. The pursuit officer said he struck his fellow officer as well.

Harris then took off north on I-95 with squad cars in pursuit, going 100 mph as far as Okeechobee Boulevard, before exiting and doubling back.

Katz said he decided to go public about the video on Tuesday, five days after The Palm Beach Post made a public records request for it, because the video was going to be released to Harris’ defense attorney, making it a public record, and he wanted to get out in front of the story.

“We did recognize that the video was coming out, and we felt responsible to do so with some context to the public,” he said.

The video had not been turned over by the state attorney’s office as part of discovery last year to Harris’ defense attorney. Boynton police say they received a subpoena from the FBI and gave them and the state attorney their only copies of the video last September. They had to get a new copy on Monday, Boynton police spokeswoman Stephanie Slater said.

While Katz maintained that he sought the FBI’s involvement, Slater said the FBI issued a subpoena “to ensure that they had all copies of the video from us.”

Harris’ mugshot after the incident showed him barely able to open one eye and the other swollen shut. He’s in jail and facing charges of aggravated battery on an officer, fleeing and failing to stop at an injury accident.

He has an extensive criminal history that includes arrests for assault with a deadly weapon, selling heroin, attempted armed robbery, domestic battery and domestic assault.

At one point during the chase, Braswell later told police that Harris said, “I’m on probation, and I can’t go to jail for murder.”

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