Pho­tos in­di­cate that cops ig­nited clash at protest

Miami Herald - - Front Page - BY SARAH BLASKEY AND NI­CHOLAS NEHAMAS sblaskey@mi­ami­her­ald.com nnehamas@mi­ami­her­ald.com

A re­port from Fort Laud­erdale of­fi­cers shows that the vi­o­lent con­flict and La­Toya Ratli­eff’s skull frac­ture by a rub­ber bul­let came after an of­fi­cer re­sponded to emer­gency distress call shoved a kneel­ing wo­man. Po­lice re­ports don’t match photo ev­i­dence.

When Fort Laud­erdale po­lice fired rub­ber bul­lets at pro­test­ers on May 31 — leav­ing one wo­man with a frac­tured eye socket and 20 stitches — they said they were re­spond­ing to a mob of “vi­o­lent ag­i­ta­tors” who at­tacked an of­fi­cer in an un­marked ve­hi­cle at a city park­ing garage shortly be­fore 7 p.m.

“Where it went bad, we had a fe­male of­fi­cer in her ve­hi­cle who was at­tacked. She came over the ra­dio scream­ing for help. She was be­ing sur­rounded,” Fort Laud­erdale Po­lice Chief Rick Maglione told the Mi­ami Her­ald shortly after the Black Lives Mat­ter protest. The Fort Laud­erdale Po­lice Depart­ment pro­vided pho­tos taken the fol­low­ing day of shoe prints on the trunk of the ve­hi­cle that they say are ev­i­dence of pro­test­ers jump­ing on the car.

But a re­view of dozens of time-stamped pho­tos and videos taken at the garage does not re­flect the ter­ri­fy­ing at­tack — dur­ing which the of­fi­cer said she felt her “life was in im­mi­nent dan­ger,” ac­cord­ing to her of­fi­cial in­ci­dent re­port.

While pro­test­ers yelled and held up signs

La­Toya Ratli­eff tes­ti­fied in front of Congress — by way of a vir­tual hear­ing — about how she was shot in the face with a foam rub­ber bul­let at the May 31 protest.

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in front of the of­fi­cer’s ve­hi­cle, none of the more than 100 pho­tos and videos re­viewed by the Her­ald show any­one touch­ing the car around the time of the distress call. Wit­nesses in­ter­viewed by the Her­ald, in­clud­ing three pho­to­jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing the protest, said they did not see any­one at­tack the car. The of­fi­cer said she did not turn on her body cam­era.

The pho­tos and videos call into ques­tion the nar­ra­tive put for­ward by po­lice and Mayor Dean Tran­talis that the crowd in­sti­gated the vi­o­lence after a protest that had re­mained peace­ful all day. In fact, the vis­ual doc­u­men­ta­tion sup­ports what wit­nesses have been say­ing for weeks: that a po­lice of­fi­cer ig­nited the vi­o­lent clash that lasted for two hours in the streets of down­town Fort Laud­erdale.

Around 6:45 p.m., after the protest wound down, many marchers were head­ing back to their cars in a city park­ing garage two blocks from Huizenga Plaza, where the demon­stra­tion had been staged. Oth­ers con­tin­ued march­ing and chant­ing in smaller groups.

Of­fi­cer Stylia­nee Hayes was sta­tioned in an un­marked black Toy­ota Camry at the mouth of the park­ing garage. Pho­tos taken at 6:50 p.m. show that a small group of pro­test­ers walk­ing down the street and hold­ing up signs turned to face her ve­hi­cle.

The pro­test­ers do not ap­pear to ob­vi­ously threaten Hayes or her ve­hi­cle. Still, Hayes felt her life was in dan­ger, ac­cord­ing to her of­fi­cial in­ci­dent re­port.

“The crowd swarmed my ve­hi­cle and I had no av­enue of es­cape. Un­known sub­jects were pound­ing on [the] ve­hi­cle, the win­dows, and sub­jects even be­gan to jump on the trunk of my car,” Hayes wrote in her re­port. “I locked the doors on my ve­hi­cle and re­al­ized I was trapped with a hos­tile crowd of sub­jects in­tend­ing to cause harm to me. I be­lieved that my life was in im­mi­nent dan­ger.”

Hayes called for emer­gency backup. The pre­cise time of the call is un­clear. Dozens of other of­fi­cers say it came at 6:51 p.m., ac­cord­ing to their in­ci­dent re­ports. A po­lice spokes­woman said ra­dio trans­mis­sions show the call went out about 30 sec­onds be­fore that. The depart­ment’s com­puter as­sisted dis­patch records, which can op­er­ate on a slight de­lay, say it was nearly 6:52 p.m.

Alex Dixon, a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher cov­er­ing the protest, was pho­tograph­ing the group as it ap­proached the garage. Dixon said he saw noth­ing re­sem­bling the in­ci­dent de­scribed by Hayes.

The Her­ald re­viewed 89 pho­tos Dixon took be­tween 6:50 p.m. and 6:53 p.m. None showed pro­test­ers swarm­ing or jump­ing on the car. Hayes could not be reached for com­ment. (Re­porters en­sured the ac­cu­racy of the time­stamps by com­par­ing meta­data from cam­era and cell phone pho­tos taken si­mul­ta­ne­ously.)

Her­ald staff pho­tog­ra­pher Carl Juste was also stand­ing near Hayes’ car when her distress call went out. “If they were jump­ing on her car, I would have no­ticed,” Juste said. “I would have shot it.” Alexia Fodere, a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher work­ing for the Her­ald, said she did not see pro­test­ers at­tack the car ei­ther.

The pho­tos show an­other of­fi­cer sit­ting on a mo­tor­cy­cle feet away watch­ing pro­test­ers who were stand­ing near the car mo­ments be­fore Hayes put out her emer­gency distress call. Records do not show the other of­fi­cer made a distress call.

The depart­ment pro­vided seven pho­tos of Hayes’ ve­hi­cle, taken June 1, show­ing a dent in the rear pas­sen­ger-side door and sev­eral scratches and foot­prints on the trunk. “We are re­view­ing Of­fi­cer Hayes’ re­port as part of our com­pre­hen­sive after-ac­tion re­view,” the depart­ment said. “Her ve­hi­cle was dam­aged.”

What­ever may have hap­pened be­tween pro­test­ers and Hayes, it quickly de­fused. Al­most im­me­di­ately after Hayes ra­dioed her distress call, pro­test­ers had moved away from her ve­hi­cle, pho­tos show. Calm seemed to have been re­stored.

The first doc­u­mented phys­i­cal al­ter­ca­tion that day be­gan when an of­fi­cer, Steven Po­horence, one of the first to re­spond to the distress call, con­fronted mem­bers of the crowd and pushed a young wo­man in the head at 6:52 p.m. She was kneel­ing with her hands up at the time. An­gered by the of­fi­cer’s vi­o­lent con­duct, pro­test­ers pelted him with plas­tic wa­ter bot­tles as he re­treated.

“That’s when all hell broke loose,” Juste, the Her­ald pho­tog­ra­pher, said.

At 6:52 p.m., po­lice of­fi­cers were pour­ing into the garage in re­sponse to Hayes’ emer­gency distress call. Most ar­rived in time to see the wa­ter bot­tles fly­ing but not what pro­voked the pro­test­ers. Of­fi­cers quickly re­sponded with tear gas, ac­cord­ing to their re­ports. Some pro­test­ers threw the can­is­ters back and also hurled rocks.

At the park­ing garage, of­fi­cers shot rub­ber bul­lets into the crowd.

Just min­utes after the distress call, pro­tester La­Toya Ratli­eff, a 34-year-old non­profit grant writer from Del­ray Beach, en­coun­tered the con­fronta­tion on her way back to her car. She joined oth­ers who were try­ing to re­store calm by en­cour­ag­ing the group of an­gered pro­test­ers to kneel in the street in front of the park­ing garage in­stead of fight­ing back. With their hands in the air, the group told the pha­lanx of po­lice of­fi­cers in riot gear they wanted peace. The cops con­tin­ued to shoot pro­jec­tiles and throw tear gas. In in­ci­dent re­ports, po­lice said peo­ple throw­ing rocks were us­ing the peace­ful group as hu­man shields.

At 7:07 p.m., Ratli­eff was chok­ing on gas and be­ing led away from the scene when an of­fi­cer raised his weapon and shot her in the face with a rub­ber bul­let from roughly 30 feet away. The im­pact frac­tured her eye socket. The of­fi­cer said he was aim­ing for a man be­hind Ratli­eff who tossed a tear gas can­is­ter back at po­lice.

After Ratli­eff was shot, the con­flict in­ten­si­fied and spread. Clashes broke out in other ar­eas around the park where the protest had started peace­fully. For two hours, lines of riot po­lice used tear gas, rub­ber bul­lets and a sound can­non on pro­test­ers. Some pro­test­ers launched bot­tle rock­ets and fire­works at them.

In the 133 pages of in­ci­dent re­ports re­leased in re­sponse to a pub­lic records re­quest, only two of­fi­cers men­tioned that Ratli­eff was shot.

And not a sin­gle of­fi­cer re­ported that one of their col­leagues seemed to have ig­nited the vi­o­lence by shov­ing the kneel­ing young wo­man. The only ex­cep­tion was an of­fi­cer who chased Po­horence away from the scene and be­rated him. But her re­port was heav­ily redacted, be­cause the Florida Depart­ment of Law En­force­ment is in­ves­ti­gat­ing Po­horence’s ac­tions. He has been sus­pended from ac­tive duty.

For more than three hours be­fore the clash at the garage pro­test­ers had marched with­out in­ci­dent. Or­ga­niz­ers from the Black Lives Mat­ter Al­liance of Broward had trained vol­un­teers to keep the crowd calm and away from build­ings. Po­lice re­ports in­di­cate a hand­ful of busi­nesses were van­dal­ized, but none along the protest route. An un­der­cover of­fi­cer in the crowd also noted that it was peace­ful and wellor­ga­nized.

De­tec­tive Ali Adam­son, a spokes­woman for Fort Laud­erdale po­lice, said the depart­ment’s over­all re­sponse that day was jus­ti­fied.

“It is a fact that peo­ple who at­tended this demon­stra­tion used stacked con­crete, bricks, and rocks. Oth­ers brought ex­plo­sives, spray paint, and bot­tles of other uniden­ti­fied liq­uid. There was de­struc­tion to prop­erty and de­lib­er­ate at­tacks on our of­fi­cers that day,” Adam­son said in a state­ment.

Po­lice did not pro­vide video or photo ev­i­dence of pro­test­ers swarm­ing Hayes’ car. Nor did they pro­vide pho­tos of stacks of bricks or con­crete. They also did not an­swer when asked if they had iden­ti­fied the “uniden­ti­fied liq­uid” in bot­tles.

Protest or­ga­niz­ers had passed out plas­tic bot­tles of wa­ter through­out the day.

Her­ald re­porters cov­er­ing the protest wit­nessed no rocks or ex­plo­sives be­ing thrown by pro­test­ers un­til after Po­horence shoved the kneel­ing wo­man.

After be­ing pre­sented with the Her­ald’s find­ings, Maglione main­tained that pro­test­ers started the vi­o­lence by at­tack­ing the po­lice ve­hi­cle, ac­cord­ing to a depart­ment spokesper­son.

Tran­talis, the mayor, said it was “im­por­tant that we find out how the vi­o­lent ac­tiv­ity sud­denly ma­te­ri­al­ized out of an other­wise peace­ful event.”

But he said that based on in­for­ma­tion from the po­lice, it did not seem that Po­horence was solely re­spon­si­ble for the vi­o­lence that day.

“How would that in­ci­dent have ig­nited what hap­pened? How many peo­ple would have watched that and seen what he did and then swarm and at­tack?” he said. “It wasn’t like he was on stage and ev­ery­one could see it from the big screen. How did it all the sud­den rip­ple through the crowd? It seems like the melee had al­ready be­gun and it wasn’t trig­gered be­cause of what he did to the wo­man.”

READY FOR A FIGHT?

Po­lice are trained to avoid pro­vok­ing vi­o­lence, said Philip Sweet­ing, for­mer deputy chief of po­lice for Boca Ra­ton.

“We, the po­lice, are sup­posed to keep our emo­tions in check. We’re sup­posed to de-es­ca­late,” Sweet­ing said. “It’s called anger man­age­ment. The po­lice are not to al­low their emo­tions to over­ride their de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, it hap­pens all the time.”

Maglione, the chief, told the Her­ald that he had in­structed the depart­ment’s riot squad and ar­mored ve­hi­cles to stay out of sight. “Some­times hav­ing vis­i­ble uni­forms and ve­hi­cles … that makes it worse,” he said.

But his of­fi­cers’ in­ci­dent re­ports sug­gest many were ex­pect­ing a fight.

Sev­eral of­fi­cers re­ported be­ing con­cerned about a pile of bricks found near the park­ing garage in the af­ter­noon. A ra­dio call went out alert­ing the en­tire force. Many im­me­di­ately as­sumed the worst.

“The bricks were not lo­cated any­where next to a con­struc­tion site and ap­peared to be ran­domly placed there,” one of­fi­cer wrote. “This in­for­ma­tion was alarm­ing due to the fact that stacks of bricks have been show­ing up next to peace­ful protests na­tion­wide so ag­i­ta­tors can tum it vi­o­lent.”

An­other of­fi­cer said that he “rec­og­nized [the bricks] as a po­ten­tial strat­egy to in­cite civil dis­rup­tion and vi­o­lence.”

The bricks were re­moved by of­fi­cers, ac­cord­ing to in­ci­dent re­ports, but when is not clear. A spokes­woman for the depart­ment said po­lice were not cur­rently in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pile of bricks and had no in­for­ma­tion as to how they got there. Around the na­tion, pro­test­ers have been ac­cused of stock­pil­ing pal­lets of bricks to use as weapons, although in many cases it turned out the bricks found near rally sites were re­lated to con­struc­tion and had of­ten been there for months, ac­cord­ing to Factcheck.org.

At least a dozen of­fi­cers men­tioned the pile of bricks in their re­ports. All knew ex­actly where the bricks were lo­cated: the street cor­ner out­side the park­ing garage from where Hayes would later send her distress call, though their ac­counts var­ied wildly on when the bricks were found. The fact that Hayes said she was com­ing un­der at­tack at the same place where the bricks were found alarmed sev­eral of­fi­cers, ac­cord­ing to their re­ports.

When they ar­rived on the scene, of­fi­cers thought they saw the dan­ger­ous “mob” they had been ex­pect­ing after hear­ing about the bricks. They seemed to ig­nore or not re­al­ize the

fact that their col­league had ig­nited the fra­cas.

“Walk­ing up I no­ticed a large crowd of over 100 peo­ple who ap­peared to be angry. It was im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that this was no longer a group of peace­ful pro­test­ers, but an angry mob,” one of­fi­cer wrote. “As I got closer … I saw Ofc. S. Po­horence walk­ing away from the crowd and plas­tic bot­tles of wa­ter were be­ing thrown at him.”

As the con­flict es­ca­lated, of­fi­cers re­ported suf­fer­ing a va­ri­ety of mi­nor in­juries, in­clud­ing bruises, small cuts and burns that did not re­quire med­i­cal at­ten­tion. One of­fi­cer had such a bad re­ac­tion to the tear gas his col­leagues had de­ployed — “blis­ter­ing of the skin in all un­pro­tected ar­eas of my body” — that he ended up in the hos­pi­tal.

Most of­fi­cers said their body ar­mor, shields and hel­mets pre­vented them from be­ing in­jured by the rocks and fire­works tossed by pro­test­ers.

DEADLY AIM

De­tec­tive Eliezer Ramos ar­rived at the park­ing garage as part of the ini­tial SWAT re­sponse.

“We re­ceived in­for­ma­tion via po­lice ra­dio that the SWAT con­tin­gent as­signed to pro­tect the pro­test­ers was un­der at­tack by vi­o­lent ag­i­ta­tors near the park­ing garage,” Ramos wrote in his re­port re­count­ing Hayes’ distress call.

His job, as he un­der­stood it, was to pro­vide “lessthan-lethal” cover for other of­fi­cers, he wrote.

But the foam rub­ber bul­lets shots from his 40 mm launcher at nearly 300 feet-per-sec­ond are not “less than lethal.” Man­u­fac­turer spec­i­fi­ca­tions and Fort Laud­erdale po­lice train­ing poli­cies de­scribe them as po­ten­tially deadly weapons. The proper term is “less lethal.” Shoot­ing some­one in the head with such a pro­jec­tile is only per­mis­si­ble when the use of deadly force has been au­tho­rized.

Com­mand­ing of­fi­cers on the scene au­tho­rized the use of less-lethal mu­ni­tions but not deadly force.

Ramos said that he took nu­mer­ous shots at “vi­o­lent ag­i­ta­tors who threw items at Of­fi­cers with the in­tent to cause bod­ily harm and/ or in­jury.”

Then, around 7:07 pm, Ramos took a shot that could have been lethal, ac­cord­ing to the man­u­fac­turer and po­lice. The per­son he shot in the face wasn’t vi­o­lent. She hadn’t thrown any­thing. It was La­Toya Ratli­eff.

Ramos said he wasn’t aim­ing for Ratli­eff’s head. He was at­tempt­ing to shoot the mid­sec­tion of a man who had been throw­ing tear gas can­is­ters, ac­cord­ing to his re­port. But, Ramos said, the man moved quickly to con­ceal him­self be­hind an “un­known fe­male pro­tester mov­ing in the same di­rec­tion.” (Video shot by a by­stander shows the man was yards be­hind Ratli­eff.)

“The less-than-lethal ‘di­rect im­pact’ round ap­peared to strike the fe­male, caus­ing her to fall to the ground,” Ramos wrote in his re­port, which he filed four days after the in­ci­dent and after he had re­viewed body cam­era footage. That footage has still not been made avail­able to Ratli­eff’s at­tor­neys or me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing the Her­ald, that re­quested it un­der Florida’s pub­lic records laws.

In his re­port, Ramos never ac­knowl­edged that the shot could have been fa­tal. He is now un­der in­ter­nal af­fairs in­ves­ti­ga­tion but re­mains on ac­tive duty. He should have re­ceived an­nual train­ing on the use of rub­ber bul­lets that would have gone over depart­ment pro­to­cols. The depart­ment has not yet pro­vided his train­ing records.

Po­lice pro­to­col says of­fi­cers should ren­der aid to peo­ple they shoot with rub­ber bul­lets. Of­fi­cer Larry Reyes and a few mem­bers of the SWAT team said they tried to help Ratli­eff, who was be­ing aided by other pro­test­ers.

“I shouted out and mo­tioned for the group to bring the pro­tester to us so that we could ren­der aid,” Reyes wrote in his re­port. “How­ever, they be­gan to move her away from the area.”

At the time, Reyes was in full riot gear and had a ri­fle strapped to his chest.

Their at­tempts to help were stymied, of­fi­cers said, when some­one in the crowd threw “what ap­peared to be a quar­ter stick of dy­na­mite” at them.

Ratli­eff’s at­tor­neys Bene­dict Kuehne and Michael Davis said in a state­ment that she “con­tin­ues to suf­fer the hor­rific and life-im­pact­ing in­juries from that use of ex­ces­sive and po­ten­tially deadly force. There is and can be no le­git­i­mate jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for what was done to her.”

Some of the vi­o­lence was doc­u­mented by po­lice body cam­eras. But in­ci­dent re­ports sug­gest that the 8,000 min­utes of footage the depart­ment is re­view­ing did not cap­ture ev­ery­thing that hap­pened that night.

One of the most fre­quently re­peated state­ments in the of­fi­cers’ re­ports: their body-worn cam­era was not “ac­ti­vated.”

ALEX DIXON Mi­ami Her­ald

At a Black Lives Mat­ter protest in Fort Laud­erdale on May 31, Ofc. Steven Po­horence turns to look at a kneel­ing young wo­man just mo­ments be­fore shov­ing her in the head.

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