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Experts question Osceola deputies’ arrest tactics before deadly shooting


Questions remain about the decisions Osceola County deputy sheriffs made when they shot and killed Jayden Baez in a Target parking lot, according to two use-of-force experts who reviewed the case for the Orlando Sentinel — one of whom called the shooting “highly problematic.”

It’s been a month since Baez was shot as he tried to escape deputies in unmarked vehicles who boxed in his car while trying to arrest two alleged shoplifters riding with him. Many in the community have demanded answers while the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates the incident.

Reports released by the Sheriff’s Office indicate Joseph Lowe and Michael Gómez had stolen $46.16 in Pokémon cards and pizza. They were returning to Baez’s car when the deputies, who had been conducting a training session nearby, surrounded them.

Though Sheriff Marcos López said the deputies wore vests labeled “Sheriff” in bright letters while flashing their lights and shouting commands to announce themselves, surveillance video shows the lights weren’t activated until Baez tried to drive off. Other elements of what occurred are difficult to discern in the video, which lacks audio and was filmed by a security camera across the parking lot.

Experts who spoke with the Sentinel questioned some decisions made by the deputies. Kalfani Turè, assistant professor at Mount St. Mary’s University and a former law enforcement officer who studies the use of force, described the shooting as unnecessary and “very ill-thought.”

“A petty theft should never end in the death of someone, and immediately I thought to myself this is a disproportionate level of force,” Turè said.

Gene Paoline, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida, said he couldn’t reach a firm conclusion without being able to hear what took place. But he said how agencies approach these scenarios should factor in the severity of the alleged crime.

“If inside that Target there were shots fired and there were citizens who were killed or injured and then officers were trying to exhaust all means to make sure that these individuals didn’t go out and hurt somebody else, this looks like the right move to make,” Paoline said. “In this circumstance, it’s a little bit tougher because we’re talking about shoplifting.”

López has faced intense scrutiny over his lack of transparency in the weeks after the shooting, as well as his handling of another incident in which a deputy sparked a fire at a Wawa in Orange County by using a Taser on a man soaked in gasoline.

On Tuesday, lawyers Mark NeJame and Albert Yonfa, who represent Baez’s family and the others in his car who survived being shot at by deputies, sent letters to FDLE, the U.S. Department of Justice and Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell, calling on them to investigate the Sheriff’s Office over both incidents.

The letter cited “real concerns about the legality and constitutionality of the policies in place by Osceola County Sheriff Lopez that we believe warrant an investigation.”

Meanwhile, leaders of the county’s Democratic Party in a statement called on López, a Democrat, to resign over both incidents: “As a community, we cannot allow the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office to continue to act with impunity and a disregard for public safety and the rule of law as demonstrated in these instances.”

A vigil in Baez’s memory was held Friday at the Target where he was killed.

‘Really aggressive policing’

The Sheriff’s Office released its reports and the video nearly two weeks after the shooting, as NeJame and Yonfa lambasted the sheriff’s lack of transparency, which public records experts said ran afoul of the state’s public records laws.

López insists deputies identified themselves with flashing lights and verbal commands as they boxed in Baez’s car, but the video, which showed the seconds leading to deputies opening fire, doesn’t show them flashing lights until Baez began driving away.

Turè, who trains law enforcement in use-of-force practices, said Baez likely couldn’t see the lights or have time to realize he was being confronted by law enforcement in the mere seconds before trying to flee. Lawyers for the men in the car said Lowe and Gómez both claimed to not have known they were facing off against cops before deputies started shooting.

Deputies should have had their lights on well before the attempted takedown — but that it was being done at all in a shoplifting case is even more concerning, Turè added.

“Some of this stuff is a no-brainer, I think this is a bad shoot‚” Turé said. “Mr. Baez lost his life as a result of really aggressive policing, and I don’t think there’s a way of looking around this.”

Paoline said the lights are less important to the situation than the verbal announcement, which the silent, partially obscured video can’t show. The deputies weren’t wearing body cameras, which could have provided a closer look at the shooting and revealed what was said prior to it.

Using the car to escape past agency vehicles and into the path of deputies could allow them to shoot in self-defense, Paoline said.

“The citizen can say all day long, ‘I didn’t want to hurt anybody, I was just trying to get out of the way,’ but if there’s a situation where police are in front of that person, that’s a deadly force encounter,” Paoline said.

Sheriff’s Office policy forbids deputies from firing at moving vehicles unless it’s to “protect against an Imminent Threat to the life of the member or others.” Deputies also can’t intentionally place themselves in the vehicle’s path and shoot at it.

The Osceola agency’s policy is out of step with some other local agencies, including the Orlando Police Department, which forbids officers from shooting into vehicles unless they are being threatened with deadly force with a weapon other than the vehicle.

‘A tactical nightmare’

According to incident reports, deputies contacted Target’s loss prevention team after detectives “happened to notice some young males acting suspiciously” in the parking lot during a training session covering “covert style operations.”

Employees then said they watched on surveillance video as Lowe and Gómez stole merchandise. But the pair weren’t stopped before leaving the store.

It’s not clear why Lowe and Gómez, who were injured by the deputies’ gunfire, weren’t stopped before getting back to Baez’s car.

A Target spokesperson confirmed employees didn’t initiate contact with deputies that day, though a company statement said that’s typically the practice “whenever a guest or team member’s safety is in question or if a situation is disrupting our business.”

Turè questioned the use of unmarked units to stop the car instead of deputies in clearly recognizable patrol vehicles. Authorities could have also investigated the shoplifting afterward using information from Target’s loss prevention team, which Turè said is the common practice.

The way the shoplifting was handled by deputies in this case, he said, was “a tactical nightmare.”

“If I am an officer and I’m going to make an intervention here, would I rather do it with you standing on the sidewalk or in your car?” he said. “Because at that point, you’re in your car and then the car can be weaponized. Why would you let the individuals get into the car?”

The FDLE’s investigation will focus on whether deputies were justified in using lethal force. But Paoline said it will be up to the agency to determine whether other tactics should have been used or policies were violated.

“The eye-check suggests they could have done less coercive measures so it didn’t get to this point,” Paoline said. “... That’s going to be something for the sheriff to answer. Perhaps no policy was violated, but is this how you want to use deadly force in your agency?”

Views mixed on timing of reports

At a May 10 press conference, NeJame and Yonfa, the lawyers for Baez’s family and the other men in the car, spent nearly an hour dissecting the surveillance footage. But they also pointed to something else they considered suspicious.

The statements provided by the deputies involved, whose names are being shielded under Marsy’s Law, indicate they were all submitted at the exact same time — 3 p.m. on May 6, nine days after the shooting took place. None of the deputies’ reports indicate who fired at the car.

“So all these deputies gave their statement at the same time on the same day [nine] days later, and they all suspiciously left out the information about the shooting,” NeJame said to reporters. “Does that not suggest collaboration?”

Agency policy requires a “minimum of two sleep cycles” before deputies who shoot someone prepare statements.

Turè said common practice after a deadly incident is for them to be submitted up to 72 hours after it takes place. That deputies appear to not have done so until more than a week after Baez was killed, he added, “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

“It suggests that there might be a cover-up or some collaboration surrounding the facts of the matter so that it supports the conclusion they hope will be found, and that’s not transparency at all,” Turè said. “It’s actually rather fishy.”

Paoline, however, argued it’s not uncommon for authorities to wait before issuing reports while officers recover from the initial mental shock of the incident.

Though agency policy mentions a timeline before deputies can be interviewed after a shooting, their accounts “can be added via a supplement at a later time.”

“You wouldn’t want the report written at the end of that shift, because it’s just going to be a mess,” he said. “There’s going to be things that go through officers’ minds and the sequencing and thinking about what was just done. ... Writing the report in the investigation becomes not secondary, but secondary to the officer’s wellbeing.”

Still, the lawyers in their letters to state and federal officials maintained that the nine-day delay, along with the resistance to questions by reporters, signals an attempt to obfuscate the facts of the shooting.

“The total extent of the protectionism, cover-ups, and favoritism within the department have begun to surface but are still not fully known,” they wrote.

© 2021, Orlando Sentinel

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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