Watching a video that captured Boynton Beach police kicking and punching a passenger in a car that had hit a fellow officer and led them on a high-speed chase, a longtime department training sergeant on Thursday sharply criticized the actions of three cops and their failure to include key facts in their initial reports of the 2014 arrest.
However, under questioning by attorneys who are defending Officer Michael Brown and former officers Ronald Ryan and Justin Harris on charges that they violated Jeffrey Braswell’s civil rights and falsified their reports, Sgt. Sedrick Aiken acknowledged that the video tells only part of the story.
Shot by an infrared camera from a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s helicopter hovering at least 700 feet off the ground, it doesn’t show what Braswell was doing when Brown flung open the car door.
If Brown thought Braswell was reaching for a weapon, the officer might have been justified punching the Lake Worth man with the same hand he was using to grip his service revolver, Aiken said.
Further, Ryan might have had good cause to give Braswell a couple of swift kicks if he thought Brown was in danger. Likewise, if Braswell refused to show Harris his hands after he was handcuffed and lying on the ground, the officer might have had to hit Braswell several times to make sure he was properly restrained, Aiken said.
“It’s possible,” Aiken said repeatedly in answer to various scenarios offered by the officers’ attorneys.
The unknowns — and the undeniable fact that police work is risky business — are major obstacles facing federal prosecutors who are trying to persuade a jury to convict the men of charges that could send them to prison for as long as 20 years.
“If an officer makes the wrong split-second decision and a subject grabs something, the officer could be dead,” said attorney Robert Adler, who represents Ryan, echoing a theme voiced by the other attorneys.
Further, in response to defense attorneys’ questions, Aiken agreed that the officers’ failure to initially disclose their treatment of Braswell could have been mere oversights. Exhausted, worried about the condition of the officer who had been hit and stressed out over the chaos of the night, they simply forgot some of the details in their initial reports and later amended them, said attorney Bruce Reinhart, who represents Brown.
Aiken is to return to the stand today so prosecutors can have him reiterate some of his testimony when he questioned the three officers’ actions and their failure to disclose that they had hit and punched Braswell. Prosecutors claim the officers changed their reports to cover their tracks after they learned about the video shot from the helicopter.
Their supervisor, Sgt. Philip Antico, is also accused of helping them falsify their reports but will be tried separately.
The video also captured some of the other six officers, who were also involved in the chase, punching and kicking Byron Harris, the driver of the car, and the other passenger, Ashley Hill. But no other officers were charged with crimes. The city paid Harris $600,000 and Hill $40,000 to settle civil lawsuits they filed against the police department.
Under questioning by prosecutor Donald Tunnage, Aiken questioned various aspects of the roughly 20-mile chase that began at about 2 a.m. on Gateway Boulevard in Boynton Beach, continued to Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach and ended on South A Street in Lake Worth.
Before getting on I-95, the car clipped Officer Jeffrey Williams, who was throwing out stop sticks in hopes of disabling it. Another officer, who was pursuing the car, ran over Williams, leaving him critically injured.
Once the fleeing car was finally stopped on South A Street, Aiken questioned why officers ran toward it. The officers, he said, should have taken cover behind the doors of their cruisers, drawn their guns and ordered Harris, Braswell and Hill out of the car.
The so-called felony stop, a mainstay of law enforcement training, is “designed to keep us safe and keep the subjects safe — to get them out without us getting hurt or them getting hurt,” Aiken said.
By rushing toward the car and flinging open the door, Brown created a dangerous situation for himself and the eight other officers who also swarmed the car.
“It created a crossfire situation between himself and his fellow officers,” Aiken told jurors. “If the suspects fire and the cops return fire there’s a risk officers will shoot each other.”
Likewise, he said, Brown’s decision to ram into Harris’ car on the darkened street violated departmental policy. Reinhart countered that while the maneuver might not be recommended, it disabled Harris’ car, ending the dangerous chase.
Still, Aiken said, Brown should have reported his actions. Further, he questioned why some other details weren’t in the officers’ original reports. For instance, Ryan didn’t initially report that he believed Braswell was reaching for a gun.
“That was a significant event,” he said. “It should have been in the first report.”
Further, Ryan didn’t file a mandatory use-of-force report until seven days after the incident. “I would want to know why it took him seven days,” Aiken said.
While both Harris and Brown filled out use-of-force reports as part of their initial incident reports, they didn’t detail exactly what force they used until a week later. Harris updated his report three times. Brown updated his twice. Still, their attorneys insisted, initially, the omissions were just oversights.
For his part, Aiken said the entire incident was unusual. Never in his 20 years of working for the department had PBSO turned over a video that captured officers’ actions during an arrrest. Never had an officer been critically injured while throwing out stop sticks. And while he didn’t say it, never have four officers been charged with crimes in connection with one incident.