On the last morning of the last day Dontrell Stephens could still walk, the 20-year-old was bicycling across Haverhill Road, talking to a friend on a cellphone.
A truck slowed as he rode against traffic.
Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy Adams Lin was watching schoolchildren waiting for a bus.
Later, he would say he followed Stephens to give him a traffic ticket for not bicycling properly. But he also would acknowledge he was suspicious of Stephens, whom he had not seen in the neighborhood before that morning, according to court records.
He intended to stop him, ask for identification and find out where he had come from and where he was going. He considered frisking him. But Lin, who is of Asian descent, denied racially profiling Stephens, who is black, and wore his hair in long dreadlocks.
When Stephens turned down a side road, Lin followed, stepping on the gas, turning on the siren and then the lights. He thought the way Stephens rode his bike was suspicious. He thought the way Stephens got off his bike was suspicious.
And four seconds after Lin got out of his patrol car, he shot Stephens four times, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Lin said he opened fire because Stephens was reaching in his back waistband, possibly for a gun.
There was no gun.
An internal investigation and the State Attorney’s Office have both cleared Lin of the September 2013 use of force. It was a good shoot, they ruled.
But the Stephens shooting illustrates key findings identified in a joint year-long Palm Beach Post/WPTV NewsChannel 5 investigation analyzing every officer-involved shooting in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast since 2000:
- In roughly one of every four shootings, Palm Beach County deputies fired at unarmed suspects. The Department of Justice has criticized jurisdictions where the percentage of shootings at unarmed suspects was sharply lower.
- 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.
All of those issues figured prominently in the Stephens shooting.
Because Stephens is suing, Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw can’t discuss the case.
In a recent interview with The Post, though, Bradshaw acknowledged policies and procedures regarding shootings can always be improved as new “best practices” are adopted.
But Bradshaw said he believes PBSO has a firm grasp on its use of lethal force. And he emphasized another belief that he also voiced in the wake of the Stephens shooting: Do what the deputy says and no will be injured.
Just what Lin told Stephens to do, though, remains up in the air. The crucial seconds before the shooting when Lin and Stephens speak to one another can’t be heard on the recording from the patrol car’s dashboard-mounted camera.
The gunshots can.
Trip to store for energy drink
In September 2013, Stephens had no job. He had recently served a few months in jail on a drug charge. But he also had no shortage of friends and a cousin who had offered to let him stay on her couch. He had a little brother whom he played ball with, and whose shoes he was wearing when he hopped on a borrowed bike to get an energy drink at a corner store.
Nearby, Lin was sitting in his patrol car at Haverhill, watching schoolchildren waiting for a bus.
He had worked hard to get there. PBSO’s Community Policing Deputy of the Year in 2010-11, Lin had applied at several law enforcement departments in South Florida before PBSO hired him in 2004 and, after a 2007 tour in Afghanistan, welcomed him back.
Stephens said later he had probably seen the deputy before he started biking across Haverhill, holding up a cracked black flip phone while talking to a friend.
Lin saw a truck slow to avoid hitting him.
That alone warranted a citation, Lin said later. But the deputy also said he was suspicious because he caught a glimpse of Stephens’ face — enough to convince him Stephens was a stranger to the neighborhood.
Stephens turned down a side street toward his friend’s house.
Lin turned in after him. Believing Stephens was running away from him, he “chirped” his siren, turned on his lights and hit the gas.
When Stephens then biked between a mailbox and a fence toward his friend’s house, a shortcut Lin could not easily follow in his patrol car, the deputy considered that further evidence of Stephens’ intent to flee.
The dashcam video shows that Stephens looks back, then continues about 20 more feet to his friend’s house, where he gets off the bike. Lin is now even more convinced that Stephens is about to take off on foot, not because he got off the bike, but because he put both feet over the same side to do so.
“The manner he stopped and got off his bicycle was consistent with someone who had run from me in the past,” Lin said in a deposition: a “rolling run” where someone jumped off with both feet on one side and just kept going.
What happened next happened fast, and mostly out of sight: Lin runs from his car. The deputy is out of range of the dashcam and can’t be seen. Stephens walks toward the deputy, then also disappears from the dashcam video. There is no audible recording of either.
Three seconds pass.
The audio suddenly snaps with the sound of pops. Stephens abruptly moves back into view, almost as though he is turning to run.
He isn’t running. He’s falling.
In his right hand, he is clutching the cellphone.
Lin walks over to him and orders him to roll over on his stomach. He maintains a shooting stance a few feet from the wounded man, until backup arrives.
“He was hiding behind the car,” a clearly shaken Lin said at the scene. “I’m just giving him commands, I’m taking cover behind this car as I’m giving him commands, all of a sudden his left hand goes like this.
“He starts backing away from me and as soon as he backs away I’m like, ‘Get on the ground. Get on the ground.’
“And I’m like ‘Oh, s—t.’ And I just threw three rounds.”
Video shocks deputy
It is the description of events Lin will tell and retell. He said Stephens had nothing in either hand, reached toward his back waistband and, Lin thought, raised what looked like a gun, “a dark black object,” in his left hand.
Stephens did have something in one of his hands, but it was not a gun, not in his left hand and it had been visible all along: It was his broken cellphone, seen on video as he crossed the road, as he approached his friend’s house and in his right hand as he approached the deputy, arms at his side.
Lin later would say he was shocked to see the phone when he reviewed the video recording.
Without specifically discussing the Lin case, Bradshaw points out that video doesn’t always accurately reflect everything that is going on. Dashcams are OK, he said, “but they’re not the whole ballgame.”
Still, it’s a crucial point. The shooting could be ruled justified whether Stephens had a gun or not, as long as Lin had good reason to believe he was about to be shot or killed.
Courts have ruled that reaching for a gun — or even what appears to be a gun — after being commanded to stop moving can give an officer a valid reason to use lethal force.
But no one can hear what Lin commanded or what Stephens said. And if Stephens had nothing in his left hand and an identifiable cellphone in his right, as the video indicates, the rationale for shooting him is weakened.
Written reports clearing Lin by PBSO and the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office don’t address those discrepancies, and neither questions whether the armed pursuit of a bicyclist who had impeded one vehicle was appropriate.
Although Stephens never touched Lin, PBSO initially wrote up Stephens for criminally assaulting the deputy who shot him. That charge was later changed to refusing to obey a lawful order.
Stephens’ suit against PBSO and Lin is pending.
Lin was cleared to return to duty four days after the shooting. He remains with PBSO and has taught community policing and officer safety.
And though he regrets Stephens’ injuries, the deputy said in a deposition that he would take the same shot again.
“What he (Stephens) did to me that day is what his choice was,” Lin said. “He decided to reach with his left hand and pointed at me like it was a gun.
“I saw a black object. I’m not going to wait for a muzzle flash to show in my face. I’m not going to be behind the eight ball.”