VOLUSIA COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
By Skyler Swisher and Frank Fernandez
Gatehouse Media Service
Published: Saturday, November 7, 2015 at 7:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 7, 2015 at 7:06 p.m.
Police shoot someone in Florida on average once every three days.
But Danny Banks doesn't know that. He's the special agent in charge for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in central Florida.
Seventh Circuit State Attorney R.J. Larizza didn't want to hazard a guess on how often police use deadly force.
State Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, and other lawmakers thought the information was readily available and were shocked to learn it wasn't.
Not even the FBI is aware of how often police in Florida use deadly force. Cities aren't legally required to report officer-involved shootings to the FBI, and many of them don't. Nor does any state agency track officer-involved shootings.
It took hundreds of public records requests, and combing through hundreds of media reports, for The News-Journal to uncover how often police shot people in 2013 and 2014 in Florida. Many agencies cooperated and turned over records, but others put up substantial barriers, charging hefty bills to provide the information and refusing to answer questions.
In 2013 and 2014, Florida law enforcement agencies shot at least 249 people, and 162 of the shootings were fatal. But even that number is likely an incomplete picture because agencies don't have to release records for cases that are still pending. Based on a review of media reports, 53 people have been killed by Florida law officers so far this year.
As scrutiny mounts on police tactics, it's unacceptable that the public has no accounting of how often people are shot and killed by officers, said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based group advocating for better police training.
“This is problematic nationwide,” Bueermann said. “The official (federal) data could be as much as 50 percent under-reported. It's a phenomenon we need to understand, and until we understand how often it happens, we may never get our hands around it and reduce the number of police shootings.”
Deadly force sometimes cannot be avoided. Just over half — about 55 percent — of the officer-involved shootings in 2013 and 2014 involved suspects who were armed with guns. Reports reviewed by The News-Journal describe incidents where officers acted heroically, sometimes defending themselves from a barrage of bullets.
But the lack of transparency surrounding officer-involved shootings also has obscured the public's view of trends that deserve scrutiny:
• Time and time again, police are called to help the mentally ill and end up shooting and killing them. In Boca Raton, a Palm Beach Sheriff deputy shot and killed a 28-year-old mentally ill man who was holding a Phillips head screwdriver, and who had called police asking for help. In the small North Florida town of Gretna, an unarmed 24-year-old man was killed after his mother requested police help to compel her son to take his medication and a scuffle ensued that led to the man being shot. In Miami Gardens, police fatally shot a mentally ill man who was waving a broom at officers. Only two states spend less per person on mental health services than Florida, meaning it is often left to law enforcement to handle the mentally ill.
• Despite making up less than 8 percent of the population, black men comprised 40 percent of the people shot by the police. Thirty-eight people who were shot by police were unarmed. Twenty-one of those unarmed subjects — about 55 percent — were black men.
• Nothing in Florida law requires an outside investigation of police shootings, and numerous law enforcement agencies across Florida investigate shootings involving their own officers. One of Florida's largest counties, Palm Beach County, handles its own investigations and has fought efforts to set up an independent citizen's review board to examine officer-involved shootings, despite calls to do so from citizens. Only one-third of law enforcement agencies have memorandums of understanding with FDLE to investigate officer-involved shootings.
• Officers occasionally shoot people while off duty and not in uniform. Most recently, the shooting death of Corey Jones by a Palm Beach Gardens officer who was not in uniform has captured headlines. But a review of records by The News-Journal found this is not an isolated case. For instance, an off-duty Palm Beach County deputy was not carrying identification but was carrying his gun when he shot a man multiple times who was trespassing in an apartment complex hot tub with his girlfriend in 2014. The deputy said the man threatened him with an empty wine bottle, and the shooting was found to be justified following an investigation by the deputy's own department. In Daytona Beach, a deputy in plain clothes shot and killed a 52-year-old hearing impaired man who was involved in a dispute at a tow yard.
• Officers continue to shoot into moving cars, despite most major police departments and the U.S. Department of Justice discouraging the practice. Shooting at moving cars is banned by many agencies because it is viewed as ineffective at stopping the threat and dangerous for innocent parties. Despite this, police identified vehicles as the primary threat for 25 people shot in 2013 and 2014.
• Police involved in shootings are rarely prosecuted on charges of excessive force. The last time a Florida police officer was successfully prosecuted for an on-duty shooting was in 1989, according to a survey of state attorney offices. An appellate court eventually overturned that conviction.
'A TRAGIC, TRAGIC INCIDENT'
Beyond the statistics exist the stories of heartbroken families who must deal with the death of their loved ones and the police officers who must grapple with a split-second decision that can change their life.
On a rainy Oct. 21 afternoon, Sheila Cruice walked into a Volusia County courtroom. Her eyes grew watery, and it wasn't difficult to know what was coming next. She took a seat on a bench in the courtroom. Family and friends surrounded her.
On March 4, deputies had arrived at 6:30 a.m. to serve a narcotics search warrant at the home of her 26-year-old son, Derek Cruice. A gunshot rang out. Cruice, wearing nothing but basketball shorts, fell to the ground with a gunshot wound to the face.
His hands were empty.
State Attorney R.J. Larizza walked to the podium. Just moments before he had broken the news to Cruice's family. The clicks of cameras and flashes filled the room. After two days of deliberations, a grand jury had declined to indict Volusia County Deputy Todd Raible, the man who shot and killed Sheila Cruice's son.
"This was a tragic, tragic incident," Larizza said with Sheila Cruice's sobs in the background. "It was an incident that nobody wanted to happen. It's an incident that if we could turn back the clock, we would."
It's a scene repeated across Florida. Investigative files contain numerous incidents where officers make split-second decisions. In this case, Raible forced his way into the home after someone locked the door, and Raible said he saw Cruice clasp his hands together, according to investigative reports. Raible pulled the trigger.
Raible recalled going outside as Cruice lay on the floor dying. He took off his belt and dropped to his knees, thinking or speaking out loud about the gun he thought he saw.
“It was there. The gun was there. He was pointing something at me,” Raible said in an interview with investigators.
Police searched the home. They found about half a pound of marijuana, $3,000 in cash, a drug ledger and a scale.
One thing they didn't find — weapons. As she left the courtroom, reporters flocked to Sheila Cruice. She bowed her head and clutched a tissue in her hand. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
"It hurts," she said. "It shouldn't have happened the way that it did."
While the deputy won't face criminal charges, the Cruice family plans to pursue the matter in civil court.
Edward P. Miller's family is also considering legal action in another Volusia County shooting.
On Sept. 20, 2014, a Volusia Sheriff's deputy in plain clothes and Miller, who according to family members was classified as profoundly deaf by a hearing aid specialist, mixed in a fatal combination that continues to echo in the family's memory. Miller, 52, was sitting in his SUV getting ready to drive away after taking his son to get his pickup from Fryer's Towing in Daytona Beach. But after a complaint by Fryer's workers, deputy Joel Hernandez, wearing street clothes and a badge, cuffs and gun on his belt, walked toward Miller. Hernandez announced he was a deputy, reports said. But Miller didn't have his hearing aids, his family said. The hearing aids were in the shop being repaired.
After Hernandez opened the door to Miller's SUV, Miller pulled his gun from his pocket, the report states. Miller had a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Hernandez shot Miller to death. Larizza determined that the shooting was justified.
Miller had worn hearing aids since age 3, said his sister Irena Crouch, 62, of Port Orange. Crouch, who is also deaf and depends on hearing aids and lip reading to communicate, dabbed at her eyes with tissue to wipe away the tears as she spoke about her only sibling.
“It's a tragedy because a beautiful human being is no longer here," Crouch said. "He was my baby brother.”
LAWSUITS AGAINST POLICE
If the Cruices and Millers take their cases to court, they'll face an uphill battle.
Suing the police is immensely difficult, and for good reason, said Christopher Dillingham, a civil rights attorney who worked for the DeLand Police Department before becoming a lawyer.
"As a societal policy, we want the police to do their job without fear of lawsuits," he said.
The 1989 court case Graham v. Connor gives guidance on when it is appropriate for police to use deadly force. Judging an officer's actions should be based on the judgment of a "reasonable" officer on the scene rather than based on hindsight. Factors to consider when evaluating the use of deadly force include the severity of the criminal act, whether the suspect poses an immediate danger to the officers or others, and whether the suspect is resisting or evading.
At one time, Florida law allowed police to shoot any fleeing felon. The 1985 case Tennessee v. Garner limited that to only instances in which the fleeing suspect poses a significant threat to the officer or others.
Indictments of police officers for the use of deadly force are extraordinarily rare, and even successful lawsuits against the police are uncommon, Dillingham said. He estimates he receives hundreds of complaints about the police in a year, but he only has filed one lawsuit involving allegations of excessive force in 2015.
Officers are entitled to qualified immunity, meaning to be successful he must show the officer acted in bad faith in blatant disregard of someone's constitutional rights.
SIMILAR SHOOTINGS, DIFFERENT RESULTS
Officers are unlikely to face sanctions in court. Even when it comes to internal disciplinary action, penalties can vary greatly by department.
In St. Petersburg, two officers were suspended and another terminated for shooting into a fleeing stolen car in April 2013, wounding 19-year-old Shaquille Sweat and a 15-year-old female passenger. Officers found the car backed into an alley and fired a collective 20 rounds when the car fled. One of the bullets struck a nearby house. Both Sweat and his passenger survived.
The city's policy instructs officers to avoid moving cars, not shoot at them. Police are only authorized to use deadly force if the occupants are threatening them with a firearm. The girl in the car told investigators that neither she nor Sweat had a weapon.
Officer George Graves was fired for his role in the shooting, and former St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon wrote that Graves was 90 feet away from the car when he fired and it was driving past him.
An arbitrator reinstated Graves in 2014 with back pay on the grounds that the disciplinary action wasn't in line with that issued to other officers.
Compare that shooting to one that happened in DeLand.
DeLand police officers tried to stop Sean Grant on Oct. 21, 2013, after a convenience store clerk said he stole a 24-ounce can of Bud Light and a sandwich. Officer Joshua Santos opened fire after Grant backed up and hit another car, then pulled forward in the direction of Santos and out of the store's parking lot. Bullets struck Grant and a backseat passenger. Both survived. At his trial, Grant's attorney argued that he was just trying to get away. A jury found Grant not guilty of aggravated assault on an officer.
Officer Santos didn't face any disciplinary action, and DeLand Police Chief Bill Ridgway defended the officer. He added that officers don't receive any special instruction regarding shooting into vehicles, and he thought Santos' actions were used only as a "last resort." After an FDLE investigation, the 7th Circuit State Attorney's Office determined the shooting was justified.
LAWMAKERS WANT ACTION
Riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore have directed the public's attention on police shootings, but officers are likely using less deadly force than they have in the past, said Eugene Paoline, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida.
Officers also have access to less lethal options, such as stun guns, that weren't available in the past.
"The use of force is a rather rare event," Paoline said. "There is no evidence to suggest police are using more deadly force. If you compare it over time, it is less because the policies are more restrictive."
But assessing how the use of force has changed over time or how it varies by department is difficult because of a lack of reliable data, Paoline said.
State Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, found it hard to believe there was no accounting of officer-involved shootings in Florida.
"I would have thought that there was one," Costello said of an accounting of police shootings in Florida. "We can't decide if there is a problem until we can measure what is happening."
In terms of establishing a database of shootings, Costello thinks the cost would be negligible, and he'd support making it mandatory for FDLE to investigate all police shootings in Florida.
Other state lawmakers joined Costello in calling for more oversight.
Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said she plans to introduce a bill requiring the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate any officer-involved fatality in the state, whether it's an officer-involved shooting or the person dies due to some other cause, such as police use of a chokehold or a Taser. Thompson said she wants a third agency to be involved since prosecutors who work daily with police also make decisions on whether to charge police with crimes.
“I want impartiality, particularly because the state attorney now makes this kind of decision and the state attorney depends on law enforcement to make the cases that they pursue,” Thompson said in a phone interview. "I believe a third party that is removed and impartial should be involved, and that would be FDLE."
One bill supported by the Legislative Black Caucus would create a 15-member panel to review police shootings. Members would be appointed by the FLDE commissioner, and at least five could not be current or former law enforcement officers.
State Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs , believes someone should be tracking how pervasive police shootings are in Florida. More importantly, he said, lawmakers need to focus on addressing the issues that contribute to police shootings. Increasing education funding to provide an extra hour of instruction at low-performing schools would be a good start.
"There exists a segment of society that feels like they have no future," he said. "There are places in American cities simply stated where many people don't want to go. What we have to do is we have to deal with the underlying problem. Education is the great equalizer in our society."
In October, The News-Journal asked Republican Gov. Rick Scott whether he thought Florida adequately tracked officer-involved shootings and if a database is needed to track the shootings.
"First off, let's think about where we are. We are at a 44-year-low in our crime rate. Whether you talk to FDLE . . . whether it's FDLE, whether it's our sheriff's offices, our police departments, I mean, they're working everyday to keep everybody safe," Scott said.
Santiago, the Deltona representative, thinks the public deserves a clearer picture, and a database of police shootings would be a good place to start, he said.
"It educates us," Santiago said. "It lets us know what is happening. It doesn't mean I am demonizing the cops. Data is still data."