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State report offers new insight into 2022 Target killing by Osceola deputies — and how it might have been avoided

State report offers new insight into 2022 Target killing by Osceola deputies — and how it might have been avoided
Alejandro Baez, shows a tattoo of his son, during a press conference, on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. NeJame will announced the filing of a lawsuit against the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office for the shooting that killed 19-year-old Jayden Baez outside a Target store in Kissimmee last April. Baez was suspected of shoplifting at the store when deputies surrounded a car he was in and fired shots that killed Baez and wounded several of his friends. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)

 

Twenty minutes and 47 seconds. That’s how long Osceola County deputies had over the course of the slowly-evolving incident that began with a reported shoplifting at a Kissimmee Target and ended with their killing of 20-year-old Jayden Baez.

That amount of time offered many chances to pursue a different outcome. Security guards might have stopped Baez’s companions early on when they observed them scoop up $46 in pizza and Pokémon trading cards inside the store. Deputies might have decided a bit later that the Target parking lot was not the place to confront the men, as one lieutenant initially suggested. Or they might have judged the crime too minor to warrant a full-scale police action.

Instead, once the two shoplifters got inside the Audi driven by Baez, the deputies swarmed the car in their unmarked vehicles, most of them failing to flash their lights or sound their sirens. A panicked Baez tried to ram the vehicles blocking him.

Seconds later, he was dead.

“We got shots fired,” a dispatcher said. Those details and others emerged from a 48-page Florida Department of Law Enforcement report on the fatal shooting of Baez in April 2022. Recently obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, the report offers new insights into the shooting, which alarmed the public and policing experts on the deputies’ heavy-handed approach to a small-time heist.

The report itself is a factual accounting that interviews all the key participants and reviews evidence but reaches no conclusions. But experts who reviewed it at the Sentinel’s request said it underscores the reckless nature of the deputies’ actions.

“I will call it what it is, and I know that police aren’t going to like it, but it’s called ‘officer-initiated violence,'” said David Thomas, professor of Florida Gulf Coast University and a retired cop with an extensive past as a training officer. “And that usually stems from poor decisions that are made in the beginning that puts officers in a position where they are forced to use deadly force.”

The report’s release comes after a grand jury convened by the Orange-Osceola state attorney recently cleared deputies Scott Koffinas and Ramy Yacoub of charges for killing Baez that day. The experts found little to contradict the panel’s conclusion that the deputies’ behavior should not be prosecuted. But there was much material in the report to bolster the next phase of the grand jury’s work, an expected report on the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office’s policies and procedures.

Sheriff Marcos López, who faces reelection this year, isn’t waiting for that judgment. He said last month that his staff had been working on policy changes to prevent similar encounters in the future, a turnabout from his original position that no such changes were needed.

Put in place earlier this week, the new policy language obtained by the Sentinel shows the department will engage in vehicle takedowns only for incidents involving felony crimes, and will be far more judicious before shooting into moving vehicles.

‘A civilian with a gun’

“Everybody end scenario. Make sure you have your gear and head towards the target,” a lieutenant said over his radio. “This is not a scenario. Scenario’s over.”

By sheer happenstance, a group of deputies training in surveillance and vehicle takedowns in Kissimmee suddenly got the opportunity to put their training into action. Two men were inside a nearby Target store, watched closely by store security. An Audi with its license tag covered eased into a handicapped parking spot, suggesting a connection.

The lieutenant in charge of the scene suggested at one point they follow the car “and let them go hit somewhere else.” But the idea was quickly abandoned.

“They’re definitely here for, with that tag like that, to commit a crime. They might have got spooked here,” the lieutenant said. Minutes later, the shoplifting was confirmed, though it wasn’t clear if it amounted to a felony.

Scott,” the lieutenant said to Koffinas, “you have the green light to do the block. Whether we can confirm it or not. The way they’re set up with the covered tag, they’re set up to try to flee.”

The men got into the Audi. The deputies were on the move. The only video publicly released of the incident shows vehicles quickly converging on Baez’s car, boxing it in, with emergency lights visible and flashing briefly on only one of them before Baez tried to take off.

Inside the car, the shoplifters had only moments to make a decision. In the first public recounting from Baez’ companions, Michael Gómez told state investigators that he didn’t know for sure the people surrounding them were cops until they started shooting, but he guessed they were. “I don’t think a regular civilian is going to pin us down like that,” he said, according to the report.

He begged Baez to stop trying to escape, he said. Baez didn’t listen.

Despite the chaos, none of that prelude likely played into the grand jury decision to clear Koffinas and Yacoub, who fired the shots that killed Baez, Thomas said. When it comes to officers using force, what typically matters is what happens in the moment of contact and not the moments leading up to it.

“It doesn’t matter how they got there,” Thomas said. “Oftentimes, it doesn’t matter if what the officer did was illegal or questionable. It is, ‘Is that person in fear for their life at that point in time?'”

In interviews with FDLE, Yacoub said he had exited his truck and began shooting as the Audi moved toward him. Koffinas told investigators he fired because he feared Yacoub had been run over. “My intent was to stop the driver, which I was given no other choice at that moment,” he said.

Thomas said the killing of Baez could have been avoided had Yacoub stayed in his truck, but the officers were already committed to a confrontation. “Once things are in motion, you can’t pull them back. You just can’t stop.”

“That’s the essence of officer-initiated violence. It’s poor decision-making that created the problem,” he said.

Policy changes

Procedures now in place in the Sheriff’s Office might lead to a different outcome in the future.

One change involves the policy on pursuing fleeing suspects and the use of “tactical vehicle takedowns.” The tactic will be allowed only on felony suspects by deputies trained to use it. It is reserved for “stationary target vehicles” and is forbidden during routine traffic stops.

Deputies are also directed to stay in their vehicles “until compliance is obtained,” according to language made effective on Tuesday.

The agency’s use-of-force policy already prohibited firing into fleeing vehicles, but the new version adds more restrictions. Shooting into moving vehicles is permitted only if someone’s life is threatened “by means other than the vehicle” or if the driver deliberately tries to strike someone with the vehicle while “all other reasonable means of defense have been exhausted.”

Thomas said takedowns like the one used on Baez and his companions should never have been employed for a misdemeanor, let alone with unmarked vehicles. In his experience, such high-risk tactics are typically used to stop suspects of high-level felonies like robbery, murder and rape.

“Why would you be doing a takedown with unmarked cars other than that scenario? I don’t understand it,” Thomas said.

What comes next?

Keller Sheppard, a criminal justice professor at Florida State University, said policy changes like these in Osceola County often happen as a reaction to specific incidents, like the wave of reforms nationwide following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. In 2022, Baez was one of at least 1,201 people killed by law enforcement around the country, according to the Mapping Police Violence database, a record number at the time.

“Policing in general is very reactionary, and it takes a major incident like this to implement policies, especially ones that are so hyper-specific to the circumstances of this particular case,” Sheppard said. “It’s just something that, unfortunately, is a product of the fact that police agencies tend to be slow and incremental with reform.”

The grand jury’s pending report is expected to weigh in on the Sheriff’s Office’s policies at the time of the shooting. Attorney Mark NeJame, whose law firm represents Baez’s family and the surviving passengers, hopes it delves into what he called “various deficiencies” leading up to it.

The Sheriff’s Office also faces a federal excessive force lawsuit over the shooting, in part accusing Sheriff López of fostering “an agency-wide culture of escalating minor criminal offenses into violent and deadly scenes.”

Still, experts believe the details of the Target shooting can offer new lessons to deputies to avoid similar incidents in the future.

“If I’m a sheriff or chief or training unit director,” Thomas said, “I’m taking this case and using it as an example of what to do and what not to do and why this went wrong.”

© 2024, Orlando Sentinel

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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