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‘Should not have happened’: Grand jury report rebukes Osceola sheriff, deputies who killed Jayden Baez

Grand jury in police shooting: What you need to know
Alejandro Baez, left, wipes tears as a tattoo of his son Jayden Baez —who was shot and killed by Osceola County sheriff’s deputies in 2022— is visible while his attorney Mark NeJame delivers remarks on a grand jury report that is critical of sheriff’s office policies, during a press conference at the Osceola County Courthouse, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

 

While it did not hold deputies criminally liable, the jury found their poor decisions and training led to the death at a Kissimmee Target

Osceola County deputy sheriffs could have avoided killing Jayden Baez in April 2022 if not for their faulty judgment and their department’s poorly crafted policies on the use of appropriate force in response to minor crimes, a grand jury report released Thursday concluded.

The report, announced by Orange-Osceola State Attorney Andrew Bain, slams the deputies’ tactics in the minutes leading to the shooting death of the 20-year-old Baez, who drove a car carrying two passengers accused of shoplifting $46 in pizza and Pokémon cards.

Deputies in unmarked vehicles blocked Baez in his parking spot, then fired as he rammed their vehicles trying to flee. Two of his companions, Joseph Lowe and Michael Gomez, survived despite being struck several times by gunfire.

Scott Koffinas and Ramy Yacoub, who fired the shots that killed Baez, were cleared of criminal charges by the grand jury. But the report for the first time officially lays blame for the shooting on the deputies and their training. It also reveals that Sheriff Marcos Lopez — who initially defended the deputies but subsequently overhauled department policy — refused to testify to the grand jury.

“Our conclusion, bluntly, is that this should not have happened,” the grand jury said in its report, which was made public after Bain’s press conference. “Our findings uncovered grave concerns about whether the appropriate amount of force was used to apprehend misdemeanor shoplifters and how insufficient training around vehicle blocks and a lack of communication needlessly created circumstances where a deputy was faced with death or great bodily harm.”

Koffinas and Yacoub said they fired because they feared for their safety and that of their colleagues, but the jury said better decision-making would have minimized the danger.

The findings in the report mirror almost point by point the conclusions of use-of-force experts who reviewed details of the incident previously at the request of the Orlando Sentinel. In criticizing tactics and training, one expert called Baez’ death a case of “officer-initiated violence.”

Specifically the grand jury criticized the use of a “vehicle takedown” — usually reserved by police to avert significant threats — to counter a shoplifting and the lack of discussion as to whether such a drastic response was warranted. It also cited the lack of training that led Yacoub to step into the path of Baez’s car before firing at him. Effective Feb. 20, the Sheriff’s Office made changes to its use-of-force and vehicle takedown policies, prohibiting these and other actions.

The report further criticized the agency for not equipping its deputies with body cameras at the time, calling the lack of video footage “one of the biggest challenges” when reviewing the case. The cameras, it said, “would have left no questions” as to how the shooting went down in real-time.

Most deputies in the Osceola department have been equipped with body cameras since the agency first purchased them in 2018, but many in so-called specialized units don’t have them. At the time of the Target shooting, Lopez said the deputies didn’t have them as they were participating in training exercises before deploying to the scene.

The only footage of the shooting comes from a surveillance camera overlooking the parking lot.

“In 2022, much less 2024, there appears to be no reason for a law enforcement officer who is anticipating the detention or arrest of a member of the public to not be wearing and using a body worn camera,” the report concluded.

Lopez was invited to speak before the grand jury but declined, a detail that had not been previously made public. Instead, he offered to send other representatives to testify on his behalf, which the grand jury rejected.

“Because we feel the gravity of the situation warrants the Sheriff’s appearance before us, we, in turn, decline his invitation to have other members of his agency testify instead of him,” the grand jury said.

Lopez, who faces reelection this year, later issued a statement thanking the grand jury “for their wisdom in clearing our deputies of all charges” and for its recommendations. He didn’t address his decision not to testify.

 

Alejandro Baez, the father of Jayden Baez, shot and killed by Osceola County sheriff’s deputies in 2022, during the incident at a Target store in Kissimmee, listen to Orange-Osceola State Attorney Andrew Bain
Alejandro Baez, left, the father of Jayden Baez, who was shot and killed by Osceola County sheriff’s deputies in 2022, and Michael Gomez, center, who was also shot by deputies during the incident at a Target store in Kissimmee, listen to Orange-Osceola State Attorney Andrew Bain deliver remarks announcing a grand jury report critical of sheriff’s office policies that they say led to four being shot by deputies. Victims’ families have a civil rights lawsuit filed against OCSO. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

Bain — who convened the grand jury last fall, then spoke about its findings alongside Baez’s family, the surviving passengers and their loved ones — said he believed the report’s assessment of the Target shooting was fair.

“We are very mindful that a young man has lost his life and his loved ones are still grieving,” Bain said. “… The grand jury has done great work in this case. I want to thank them for their time and dedication these last few months and appreciate their insights and recommendations.”

In apparent anticipation of the criticism, the Osceola Sheriff has implemented policy language first reported by the Sentinel that addresses many of the areas the grand jury faulted for Baez’s death. It adds rules on the use of “tactical vehicle takedowns,” restricting their use to felonies and requiring training before a deputy can perform them. The new policy further orders deputies to remain in their vehicles during a takedown “until compliance is obtained.”

The new policies also transform department practice on shooting into moving vehicles, prohibiting deputies from stepping in the path of a fleeing suspect as Yacoub did.

The grand jury acknowledged the policy changes were responsive to the problems it found.

“We are hopeful that these policy changes make another tragedy on the scale of this one far less likely to occur in the future,” the grand jury said.

The grand jury’s findings were celebrated by attorney Mark NeJame, who represents Baez’s family and the surviving passengers shot by deputies. NeJame had previously accused the Sheriff’s Office of excessive force, and a federal lawsuit against the agency points at Lopez for fostering “an agency-wide culture of escalating minor criminal offenses into violent and deadly scenes.”

The report, NeJame said, “supports what we’ve been saying all along.” Standing alongside Baez’s family, he blasted Lopez after reading out to reporters the section describing the sheriff’s unwillingness to testify.

“It was either indifference or cowardice that he didn’t come before this grand jury that represented the citizens of Osceola County to speak on this tragedy that was caused by his policies, his procedures, his protocols,” NeJame said.

Alejandro Baez, Jayden Baez’s father, thanked the grand jury for its work. Still, he wiped tears as he spoke of his son, who mhe once lovingly described as a “pretty boy” he nicknamed, “Champ.”

“I miss my son every day,” the elder Baez said. “I just don’t want no other family or parents to go through something like this. It’s not a good feeling to keep living your life knowing you won’t see your child again.”

© 2024, Orlando Sentinel

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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