When her baby was born, Natasha Clemons hugged him and kissed him and promised to God she’d protect him from the mean world. She never laid him in a crib because she needed him close. She drove him to school because she didn’t trust bus drivers. She took him to church, taught him to mind his manners, to respect the police and do what they say.
She constantly texted his coaches and teachers when she shipped him off to college in New Mexico on a football scholarship. She wore a T-shirt that said RODNEY’S MOM on senior day and held his hand as they walked across the field. Helicopter parent? She was a backpack.
And with her college graduate back home in Sarasota, tooling around in his mother’s white Jeep Liberty with the five-star safety rating and the gospel music in the CD player, she worried.
She texted him, like she did most nights.
Rodney Mitchell, 23, who worked at Kohl’s department store, was on his way around 9:30 p.m. on June 11, 2012, when he saw police lights in the rearview mirror. He pulled off U.S. 301 and came to a stop on Washington Court, just north of Dr. Martin Luther King Way.
The deputy getting out of the Crown Victoria behind Mitchell was the same age and also had gone to college on a football scholarship. Under different circumstances, they would’ve had a lot to talk about.
Adam Shaw had made mistakes in 2½ years with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. He’d been disciplined for stopping minority residents for seatbelt violations then illegally searching their cars. Now he was part of Operation Armistice. Police were saturating north Sarasota to reduce crime. The black community scornfully called it Operation Amistad, after the slave ship.
Mitchell, in the Jeep with Florida tag GODANGL, was the next target.
Shaw would later say he saw Mitchell wasn’t wearing a seatbelt as the two passed on the road going opposite directions, even if it was nighttime and the Jeep had tinted windows. He would say the car didn’t stop soon enough, and that after it stopped, the driver was moving around a lot inside. He would say the driver refused to put the car into park.
What Mitchell’s 16-year-old cousin remembers from the passenger’s seat is a white cop rushing to the driver’s window and shouting: “Boy, why didn’t you stop the car?”
He remembers another officer walking to the front of the Jeep, the spotlight from his vehicle beaming through the windshield. He remembers Rodney Mitchell’s hands on the steering wheel, and Shaw ordering him to put the car into park. He remembers his unarmed cousin moving his right hand from the wheel toward the gearshift, then the flash from a muzzle, then the sound of four shots.
Pop, pop, pop, pop.
Natasha Clemons raced to the scene when a friend called. Police would not let her go to Mitchell, sprawled in the driver’s seat, wearing his seatbelt. She collapsed right there, bathed in the blue lights of the lawmen who killed her only son.
On June 12, 2012, the day after Mitchell died, police shot a man in Boynton Beach. They shot another two days later in Sunrise, then two days later in Melbourne, then four days later in Tallahassee. They shot 14 people that month and 136 people that year statewide: bank robbers and rapists, but also tourists and a security guard and a hospice nurse. You’d never know the tally. Some shootings don’t make the news. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement can say how many purse snatchings there were in any given year, but not how many times officers fired on citizens. The FBI’s statistics on police shootings aren’t much better. No one keeps accurate count.
“Embarrassing and ridiculous,” FBI director James B. Comey called the lack of data.
“Unacceptable,” former Attorney General Eric Holder called it.
For the past three years, shootings of unarmed black men caught on video have sparked outrage. But they are anecdotes. Without data, there’s no scope.
“How can we fix what we can’t measure?” asked Vanita Gupta, who headed the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division from 2014 to January of this year.
To help fill that void, the Tampa Bay Times in September 2014 asked all of the nearly 400 law enforcement agencies in Florida for reports generated any time an officer shot someone between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2014. The Times analyzed more than 10,000 pages of police records and combed through hundreds of media reports and court files, and conducted dozens of fresh interviews, to build Florida’s most comprehensive database of police shootings.
Databases compiled since the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — most notably by the Washington Post and The Guardian US — cover a shorter period of time, rely on media reports and count only those killed by police. The Times database accounts for all shootings in Florida in which someone was hit by a bullet, allowing a more comprehensive look at the numbers. It also accounts for demographics and the circumstances leading to the shootings to better understand when and why police use deadly force.
The top line findings: Each year had about the same number of shootings, an average of 138.
The youngest person shot was a 2-year-old Jacksonville boy in his mother’s car at a Wendy’s. He survived. The oldest was a deranged 80-year-old man who shot at an officer before the officer fired back. He, too, lived.
Nearly a fifth of the people shot — 156 — were unarmed; no gun, no knife, no vehicle. And half of those were black, in a state where blacks make up just 15 percent of the population.
One hundred twelve people shot were believed to have driven toward police officers or otherwise used a vehicle as a weapon.
Most of the shootings seem justified. While millions of interactions are peaceful, we give police the authority to kill and the benefit of the doubt, and we expect them to use violence judiciously to protect the public and themselves. More often than not they do. And policing can be dangerous. In the same six years, 23 officers were killed in the state, according to the FDLE..
But then there are cases like Rodney Mitchell’s.
They highlight systemic problems that lead to questionable shootings: police operations that target minority neighborhoods; dubious traffic stops and nervous cops who rush to judgment; bad decisions by police that put them in harm’s way so they feel forced to shoot.
In the worst cases, officers lie. They change their stories, tamper with evidence. They can kill an unarmed man lying on his back.
And no matter what they’ve done, they almost certainly won’t be charged with a crime, the Times found. Only once in the six years and 827 shootings analyzed was an on-duty cop charged with a crime for shooting someone. It got thrown out of court.
On-duty police are more likely to face criminal charges if they shoot and miss.
Many of the shootings were avoidable and unnecessary. Those tend to be the ones that make national news and spark protests.
“Lawful, but awful,” is what Chuck Wexler calls them.
He’s executive director of a group of police executives who study issues like use of force. He said a full third of police shootings nationwide are cases in which the suspect was unarmed or cases where police could have avoided putting themselves in harm’s way, like unnecessarily standing in front of a suspect’s car.
Check the Times database and you’ll find plenty of cases that fit Wexler’s description of lawful, but awful.
A 17-year-old boy with Down syndrome who took his mom’s minivan for a low-speed joy ride.A 60-year-old man fetching cigarettes from a car in his driveway. An autistic 18-year-old who threw four lava rocks at an officer. A drunk 20-year-old who was chased down and shot by an off-duty deputy after a ring-and-run prank. A man shoplifting a can of Bud Light from a gas station.
An unarmed 23-year-old ex-football player driving his mother’s Jeep Liberty.
James Cook, 69, parked his Toyota Prius a few blocks from the state Capitol building in Tallahassee and climbed the stairs to his law office, where the Bill of Rights hung on the wall. Books about police brutality lined his shelves, and letters from prisoners spilled out of boxes on his floor. On his computer screen was a photograph of Rodney Mitchell in the driver’s seat of his mother’s Jeep, eyes closed, a bullet hole near his left eyebrow, his face covered in blood.
Cook speaks with a slight drawl, wears a goatee and combs his gray hair straight back. He grew up in North Florida during the civil rights era and remembers klan rallies and police roughing up black kids. He has made a career working civil rights cases, and Mitchell’s was his task on this April morning. He was preparing to appeal the judge’s ruling that granted Sarasota County sheriff’s deputies Adam Shaw and Troy Sasse and Sheriff Thomas Knight immunity from being sued.
One of the many things that bothers Cook about the Mitchell case is the position of the deputies. When Shaw made the stop and approached the driver’s side, Sasse stood near the front of the car.
“This has happened for a long time,” Cook said. “It’s kind of like a bullfighter scenario, where maybe somebody has a warrant or maybe they expect the person to try to flee. So an officer will get on each side of the vehicle and whichever way the person moves, they can be accused of trying to run over a police officer. And it’s not only a charge they can put on a person if the person surrenders, but it’s also a reason to shoot.”
And they do. Of the 827 shootings, about 10 percent started with a traffic stop and ended in bloodshed. And almost 70 percent of people shot during traffic stops weren’t armed with a gun. Cook worked on an extraordinary example that’s in the Times’ database.
In January 2010, Orange County sheriff's deputies moved in on Torey Breedlove, a suspected car thief in an SUV. Breedlove tried to drive away but was surrounded by deputies with guns drawn. A witness said Breedlove raised his hands, but deputies said they heard an engine revving, so they fired 137 rounds, killing Breedlove. A grand jury cleared the deputies, but Breedlove's sister sued on behalf of the man’s four children. Evidence presented in the civil case showed the revving engine was a deputy's SUV, not Breedlove’s. His sister got $450,000.
“The conduct at issue here,” wrote U.S. District Judge Gregory A. Presnell, “is more akin to an execution than an attempt to arrest an unarmed suspect.”
Many police agencies prohibit firing into vehicles, reasoning that they’re more likely to create a 3,000-pound unguided missile than to stop the car. The New York City Police Department adopted such a rule in 1972 and killings plummeted. But many departments have been slow to change.
Cook believes police violence stems from the militarization of police, and the spread of SWAT teams after the Watts riots in the mid 1960s. Police agencies use grants to buy military-grade equipment such as Bearcat armored vehicles, M-16 rifles and night-vision goggles. These programs grew at the same time Washington launched the war on drugs and passed laws to let police take cash and property from suspected criminals without even pressing charges. It’s called “civil asset forfeiture,” and its use has grown rapidly. In 2014, for the first time ever, police took more from American citizens than burglars did, according to economist Martin Armstrong, who used statistics from the FBI and Institute for Justice. Police departments use the money, cars and homes seized through civil asset forfeiture to support their budgets.
So street cops often are encouraged to make traffic stops, search vehicles and, if they suspect a crime, legally take the owner’s cash and car.
In the three months prior to the night Rodney Mitchell died, Deputy Shaw had stopped motorists for expired tags, faulty taillights and illegal lane changes. He searched 80 percent of the vehicles he stopped, records show, and he seized cash and drugs from several. Half were black drivers in a county that is 90 percent white.
“The answer to the riddle of why officers who are assigned to drug and gun and other contraband-oriented assignments, who are armed to the teeth, often in military fashion, take the time and trouble to make traffic stops for mundane offenses like ‘tag light out’ or ‘no seat-belt’ can be answered by the multi-million dollar forfeiture trade that supplements police incomes,” Cook said.
The current FDLE training guide for traffic stops acknowledges the importance of stops to make arrests for more serious crimes. But it also warns that the “final precipitating event in nearly every serious race riot in the United States in modern history was a traffic stop in a minority neighborhood.”
The Watts riots of 1965. The Miami riots in 1980 and ’89. Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1992. St. Petersburg in 1996.
Cook teaches community groups how to behave safely during a stop. Show your hands. Make slow movements. If asked to step out of the car, announce clearly that you’ll be removing your seat belt first.
He said that criminals are actually pretty good at this. They’ve been arrested before and know how to do it safely. It’s the rest of us who might be nervous or stressed who need help.
Rodney Mitchell had been in trouble with the law once, for DUI in college in New Mexico, but the Sarasota deputies didn’t know that. Nor could they have known that he was trying to get a job as an elementary school teacher.
On the night of the shooting, Deputy Sasse, standing near the front of the car, said he suspected something was up because of Mitchell’s behavior, but he couldn’t articulate exactly what when questioned by investigators. Cook thinks his statement is typical of racial bias and that Mitchell would have been nearly blinded by the police spotlights. The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office declined to make the deputies or the sheriff available for an interview because Mitchell’s mother filed a lawsuit, but their statements are part of the court record.
“I just noticed that the driver was just, he was just like looking all around,” Sasse told investigators. “He wasn’t paying any attention to Deputy Shaw (at the driver’s door) and what he was telling him and it was just it felt like something like he was going to take off or ... they were up to no good is what I felt. It just seemed really, really odd.”
And he later told them: “He wouldn’t make eye contact with me, he wouldn’t look at me. He just kept moving his head, looking around.”
“And that’s when you drew your weapon?” the investigator asked.
“Right. ... I drew my weapon when he put his hand down.”
Mitchell put his hand down because Shaw told him to put the car in park.
“Everything, everything was leading up to that, i(t) was just him not paying attention to Shaw,” Sasse said in a second interview with investigators. “And, and hearing Shaw say put it in park, put it in park. And I’m just looking at him and he’s, he’s not looking at me. His eyes are not making contact and it just ...”
“But he made a move with his right hand that concerned you,” the investigator said.
“As soon as he moved his hand down,” Sasse said.
He continued: “(A)s soon as his hand went down that’s when things just seemed like it just, it was going to go bad. It just, his hand went down so I’m coming out. When I come out and I’m coming up that’s when the car is taking off.”
Both officers fired twice, but it was Sasse’s second shot that struck Mitchell’s palm and head. The question Mitchell’s lawyers asked was whether Sasse’s first shot was fired after the Jeep lurched forward, as Sasse and Shaw have said. Or did Mitchell step on the gas when they started firing?
A witness at the gas station across the highway said the shots were fired before the vehicle moved. A judge disregarded his testimony because the man thought the shots came from the car, not the deputies.
Cook took on Mitchell’s case because it seemed like the deputies were trying to cover up what he perceived to be a fatal mistake. Without challenge, the version of events put forward by police tends to stick.
“These cases need to be litigated,” Cook said. “The public doesn’t want to believe that the police would behave this way and yet they’ve seen them behave this way many times now.”
In the Mitchell shooting, security video from a nearby Xpress Lube given to the Sheriff’s Office should have recorded the shooting. The video shows deputies pulling Mitchell over. Then it shows Mitchell’s Jeep careening across the highway after shots are fired. But the video frames of the shooting are missing. “The video appears to have been altered," Cook alleged in a court motion.
Lawyers for the Sheriff’s Office said that the videos had not been altered and came directly from Xpress Lube’s corporate headquarters.
The “Sheriff, in good faith, has provided copies of the Xpress Lube Videos in its possession to Plaintiffs for review and provided a chain of custody for the Xpress Lube Videos in the Sheriff's possession,” the sheriff’s lawyers argued.
Cook’s experts could not determine why there was a time lapse.
“I was never able to prove wrongdoing,” he said.
He also pointed out that black marks on the curb show that the Jeep’s tires were turned to the right, away from the officers. And that Deputy Sasse gave inconsistent statements about where he was positioned when he fired. He first told investigators he was at the side of the Jeep, near the front driver’s-side tire. Then he said he was in front of the headlight and fired through the windshield when the car lurched toward him. Investigators found that no bullets went through the windshield, but into the frame between the windshield and driver’s-side window, through the driver’s-side window and through the driver’s-side rear window.
Four shots in all, one through Mitchell’s head.
Neither deputy was hit by the car.
Rodney Mitchell’s mother was late. When Natasha Clemons finally pulled into the gravel lot in front of the Shriner lodge in DeLand one morning last April, she still wasn’t sure she wanted to be there. The fourth anniversary of his death was close and she was emotional. But she found herself part of a sorority of mostly black women whose sons, daughters and husbands have been killed by police. They wear shirts bearing the names and photographs of the dead and hold events to demand justice. They beg for new investigations and criminal charges. They also believe that race plays a role in the use of lethal force.
The numbers are, in fact, skewed racially.
Forty-one percent of people shot by police were black, the Times’ dataset shows. That means, by population, blacks were almost four times as likely as whites to be shot by police.
And blacks make up 57 percent of the shootings that start as traffic stops. That’s in a state where, according to an ACLU analysis of public data, blacks are cited for seatbelt violations nearly twice as often as whites.
The Times’ data shows that blacks were more likely to be shot in the back, shot during the commission of a minor crime, shot while trying to run and shot for resisting arrest.
Combined, whites were more likely to be shot after killing, injuring or threatening the police. Whites also were shot more often during domestic violence episodes and when they or someone they knew called police to help with mental health issues. Whites made up almost 80 percent of people involved in “suicide by cop.”
But the racial bias is hard to prove, said Wexler, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Police Executive Research Forum.
One of the group’s studies tackled racially biased policing.
Researchers held focus groups with citizens and law enforcement across the country and some results were not surprising: Citizens believed biased policing was a major problem, and cops didn’t.
What researchers found interesting was this: After a white officer in the group downplayed the scope of the problem, a minority officer would speak up and describe his or her personal experience being pulled over by police. The white officers were shocked.
If you pick that apart, it speaks more to ignorance than malevolence, researchers say. And ingrained, subconscious racial bias is a difficult problem to fix.
Inside the lodge in DeLand, the women prepared the room for a breakfast and community forum to coincide with the third anniversary of the killing of Marlon Brown, who was run over by a police car in a field here as he ran from a traffic stop in 2013. Brown was unarmed and was stopped for not wearing his seatbelt. The dramatic death was captured on the rookie officer’s dashcam and the officer was fired but never charged. But Brown’s widow, Krystal Brown, is still calling for justice. She planned the community forum.
“We had no other choice but to form a team,” Brown said. “We need each other. There’s no textbook to losing a family member to police.”
There sat Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, the Texas woman who was found dead in her jail cell three days after a questionable arrest during a traffic stop. Nearby was the aunt of Corey Jones, a 31-year-old church drummer shot dead by a plainclothes Palm Beach Gardens officer after his car broke down. At another table sat the mother of Tinoris Williams, a mentally ill man who was unarmed when he was shot inside his own apartment by a Palm Beach County deputy investigating a burglary.
“We’re not safe,” Brown said. “We have stories of people getting killed inside their own houses.”
One by one they stepped to the microphone to tell their stories to the panel of candidates running for local office.
“Take it out of the hands of local prosecutors,” one said.
“He didn’t have a search warrant,” said another.
They called for body cams and accountability. They complained about police harassing young black men in the tradition of antebellum slave patrols. One man said his son called him crying because police had stopped him for questioning while on a date with a white girl.
“Everyplace now is one incident away from chaos,” said Patrick Henry, a Daytona Beach city commissioner. “These are the times we live in.”
Henry, one of three African-Americans on the seven-member commission, said something interesting was happening in Daytona Beach. The police have a good relationship with the public, for the most part. He said it’s because of the chief, Mike Chitwood.
In their first conversation five years ago, Henry had one request for Chitwood: “Police our side of town the way you police the other side of town.” And he said Chitwood is doing just that.
“You should meet our chief,” Henry said.
Daytona Beach Bike Week, 2013. Chief Mike Chitwood, wearing shorts and a three-button polo and a salt-and-pepper mustache, was walking down a packed Main Street when a man told Chitwood he was a sovereign citizen and the police had no authority over him.
Chitwood knew the man was drunk, so he played it cool. He turned and started to walk away.
Michael Deangelo, 43, spit on the chief’s back. Chitwood tried to arrest him and Deangelo started fighting. They fell and Chitwood smacked his head on a motorcycle hard enough for four stitches. His right index finger wound up in Deangelo’s mouth and the crazed man was trying to bite it off. Chitwood, a lefty, could have gone for the gun holstered on his left hip, but he unleashed blow after blow to the man’s skull, breaking his left hand in four places, until his assailant finally let go. Bystanders helped Chitwood cuff and arrest Deangelo. Chitwood got a cast and stitches and went back to work later that day, finger intact.
He relayed the story a few months ago in his office.
“I’m not going to shoot him,” he said in an accent that betrayed his Philadelphia upbringing. “The key to use of force anywhere is proportionality. Would you use an elephant gun to kill a flea? Would I use deadly force if somebody was biting on my finger?” His answer was no.
Comb through six years of police shooting reports and Chitwood’s response seems shockingly subdued.
“You can get your finger sewed back on,” he said. “It’s not like he had a knife and he was plunging it in my chest. It was my finger ... I think anybody would have a hard time saying, ‘He bit me, so I shot and killed him.’”
In most situations, if the suspect is unarmed, there’s no reason to use lethal force, he said.
That alone could have reduced a fifth of the 827 shootings in the Times’ database in which the person shot had no weapon.
It’s not that he’d never use deadly force. Chitwood, 53, shot two gun-wielding men during his 18 years with the Philadelphia Police Department. But that thinking has driven Chitwood’s 10 years leading the Daytona Beach department. He took the job because he saw it as a challenge.
“Crime was out of control, the Police Department was out of control,” he said. “There was a lack of confidence in the police, and it seemed that every day there were bad stories about something that the Police Department was doing in the paper.”
Chitwood started to train officers in de-escalation and began equipping officers with body cameras in 2012, before that technology was widely adopted. He recorded everything that happened inside the police station, including line-ups and interviews, so “there’s no shenanigans,” he said.
He began recruiting new officers from Bethune-Cookman University in 2007 and later instituted mandatory race and policing training with the historically black college’s help.
He encouraged officers to be effective communicators. He said most officers never fire their guns, yet they spend hundreds of hours at the gun range. They spend far less time training in active listening and communication.
“We’re proficient in (shooting), but we’re not proficient in the No. 1 thing: dealing with people,” he said. “I think the No. 1 complaint in America against police officers is rudeness.”
He also began to try to keep crooked cops out of his department by hiring people with solid, deep background investigations. He established an alert system to try to identify rogue cops. He started randomly drug testing officers.
“I’ll tell you that 98 percent of the cops that work here, we have no problem with,” he said. “Two percent are your organizational terrorists. They’re constantly in trouble.”
When a citizen calls to complain, they may not know the offending officer’s name. But if Chitwood knows the shift, he knows who it is.
“And sure enough, you go back and pull the call, you know who it was because that’s just who you’re dealing with,” he said. “They’re the guys you have to focus in on.”
What’s particularly interesting about Chitwood is the stricture of his policies, especially when it comes to police chases and use of force. He’s blunt. Don’t shoot into a vehicle. If you do shoot, he said, you’d better have tire tracks on your chest.
“I think most shootings that we see are because we the police put ourselves in a position that we don’t need to be in,” he said. “Today, for some reason, we’ve switched out of the guardian mentality and we’ve become warriors. And that’s not what American policing was founded on.”
He’s been involved for many years with Wexler’s group, the Police Executive Research Forum.
Wexler began researching use of force after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which prompted protests and civil unrest. Wexler’s group organized a 2015 trip to Scotland for about 25 American police executives, including Chitwood, to learn how unarmed Scottish officers used de-escalation techniques to capture offenders armed with knives and bats.
Wexler had an epiphany on the trip. He heard one of the American chiefs say, “I tell my officers that the most important thing is that they go home safely at night.”
He saw a Scottish policeman cringe.
“We wouldn’t say that,” the officer said. “We say that everyone should go home safely.”
Chitwood was amazed to see largely unarmed Scottish officers use shields to surround and subdue a man wielding a baseball bat.
“It’s a shame that we have to preach it, but 28 years ago, when I got hired, they hammered into our heads the sanctity of human life,” he said. “And somewhere along the line, we’ve gone off the rails, and we’ve gone into this war mentality, that it’s us against the people we are protecting.”
In January, PERF issued 30 “guiding principles” on use of force based on its research. The document called on agencies to do things many cops agree with, such as adopt de-escalation as policy, render aid immediately after a suspect has been shot and prohibit shooting at vehicles.
But it also encouraged agencies to implement use-of-force policies that go beyond the minimum standard, what’s known as the “objectively reasonable” standard. That means use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.
In a rare move, the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a joint statement critical of that PERF guideline.
“At a traffic stop, in the dark alley, or during a call of shots fired, we are relying on the judgment of that officer. These brave men and women are thoroughly trained to respond appropriately to a variety of different situations, especially those in which the just and lawful application of force is necessary” the statement read. “That is why both of our organizations reject any call to require law enforcement agencies to unilaterally, and haphazardly, establish use-of-force guidelines that exceed the ‘objectively reasonable’ standard set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 30 years ago.”
Missy O'Linn, a former cop and use-of-force expert who is now a lawyer and defends officers in court, attended a PERF gathering and felt like it was a dog and pony show, that PERF was suggesting American policing was bad at its core.
She argued that a fraction of one percent of all police interactions result in the officer using any kind of force. And a much smaller fraction result in shootings.
“And 99.9 percent of those people didn’t do what the nice officer asked them to do,” she said. “That is something that is lost in the whole discussion.”
In an interview, she said the media has created a “false narrative” about policing and race by highlighting questionable shootings, including that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which sparked protests. She pointed out that police officer Darren Wilson, who was white, was cleared by a grand jury, then by the Department of Justice.
“Wilson did nothing wrong,” she said. “Officers don’t care what color your hands are. They care where your hands are.”
The “Hands-up-don’t-shoot” storyline that developed, based on eyewitnesses who said Brown’s hands were up in a surrender position when he was shot, fell apart under scrutiny. Evidence would later show that Brown punched and grabbed Wilson, but by then protesters had already carried their signs to the next controversial shooting.
“People may not understand how heavily this weighed on our officers,” O’Linn said. “We’re overwhelmed by a multitude of media reports ... that are putting our public safety officers at risk.”
She said the majority of PERF’s recommendations are fine, but some are insulting and dangerous. She pointed specifically to the suggestion that an officer facing a threat should stop to consider: “Will my actions be viewed as appropriate—by my agency and by the general public—given the severity of the threat and totality of the circumstances?”
That kind of hesitation puts the officer and public at risk, O’Linn said.
Chitwood has heard the argument that very strict guidelines can make police less safe, but he doesn’t buy it.
“What I’m asking you to do is, in certain situations, slow down,” he said. “That first bit of information, that 911 call you get, it's not sometimes right. It's not most of the time right. It's always wrong. And if you're operating on that first piece of information and you're flying in at a hundred miles an hour with wrong information, you're going to make a wrong decision.”
Have his stricter policies worked?
Daytona Beach has a population of 62,300 and is known for its raucous Spring Break crowds, NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and Bike Week, which brings some 500,000 rowdy bikers to town for 10 days every year. Chitwood said Daytona’s daytime population is closer to 120,000 and special events bring in 8 or 9 million visitors a year.
But the city had just four police shooting incidents between 2009 and 2014. Three of the Daytona shootings involved an armed suspect who was endangering lives; the other person shot had crashed into a car, led police on a chase and drove at an officer.
Armed assailants are also apprehended safely. Chitwood pointed to a recent encounter captured on an officer’s body cam, which the police gave the Times. A mentally ill man, shirtless and high on crack, was threatening neighbors with a knife. Two rookie officers exited their patrol car. One pulled out his handgun and the other drew a Taser. One of the officers had interacted with the man a few months before.
“Why don’t you chill out, Derrick?” the officer can be heard saying. “Why don’t you stop acting so crazy?”
The man, swinging his knife, walked toward the cop with the gun and the other shouted a loud warning then deployed his Taser. The man immediately fell flat on a driveway with a thud and the officer kicked his knife away, rolled him over and handcuffed him behind his back. The officers appear calm and unafraid throughout the incident.
“The neighbors on the video are like, ‘I cannot believe you didn’t shoot him. Why did you not shoot him?’ ” Chitwood said. When the man calmed down, he told one of the cops: I’m Jesus Christ and I wanted to prove to everybody here that your bullets can’t kill me.
Two months later, Chitwood was biking through the same neighborhood and Derrick shouted from his front steps.
Hey, Chitwood! How you doing, man?
“I wanted to say, ‘You dumb son of a bitch. Do you realize how close you came to getting killed?’ But here he is, back on his meds, sitting on his front step, waving at the police chief.”
David Diamond was hesitant to talk. These are tricky times to discuss police shootings, in the sway of dramatic viral videos and protests and cop killings. And, he’s just a brain scientist.
“I have a high regard for the police who have an incredibly challenging job and are under a great deal of stress,” he said in his office in the Department of Psychology at the University of South Florida. “I want to make that clear.”
But he’s also a man who has done a lot of thinking about how stress affects the human brain. He’s typically quoted in the press talking about “Forgotten baby syndrome,” those tragic moments when otherwise loving parents accidentally leave their children in hot cars. But he also lectures about stress and police shootings.
To begin with, there is a primitive part of our brain, the hypothalamus, which controls our primal emotions and our response to external stress, he said. It’s the part of the brain that makes a baby cry when it’s hungry, or makes a rat run when it sees a cat, even if the rat has never seen a cat before.
It’s the part of our brain that makes us fear for our life when our survival is threatened.
There’s another part, though, called the prefrontal cortex, which gives us our reasoning and self-control. It develops throughout our upbringing, and it’s the region that helps us plan, determine right from wrong and regulate socially inappropriate behaviors.
“When we are threatened, the brain goes into survival mode,” Diamond said. “All of this reasoning and self-control that goes on in the prefrontal cortex can be suppressed by our hypothalamus when our life is threatened.”
This competition between the prefrontal cortex and the hypothalamus has survival value, he said. A gazelle running away from a lion doesn’t have to think in the moment. It just reacts, maximizing the chance of survival.
The same thing happens in the human brain when, facing a threat, real or perceived, the hypothalamus kicks into hyperdrive. In the process, the primitive survival mode of the hypothalamus suppresses the cautious, deep thinking going on in the prefrontal cortex.
As we evolved, we learned how to get along with verbal and nonverbal communication. But it’s often the case in police encounters that those modern behaviors evaporate. The ability to read someone’s facial expression and body language, for instance, is sometimes lost in a dark alley or during a nighttime traffic stop when an officer is shining a spotlight in your face.
To further complicate things, guns — and even the threat of guns — have short-circuited these methods of communication because they’ve made it so easy to harm and kill.
So in tense situations, when communication has broken down, “the police officer is going to be so sensitive to subtle movements that may be interpreted as a threat to his or her life,” Diamond said.
Warning signals blare in the brain: act or die. Reason and reckoning are off. The need for survival trumps all other thoughts.
“The police officer in that moment,” he said, “thinks he better take your life before you take his.”
The science and U.S. courts seem to agree on this.
The 1989 Supreme Court case that provides broad legal cover for police is called Graham vs. Connor. As use-of-force cases go, this one was minor, and the ruling barely got a mention in the New York Times. But the court stated specifically that the “reasonableness” of a particular shooting must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, not with 20/20 hindsight in the safety of a judge’s chambers. Even in the rare bad shootings that are prosecuted or dragged into civil court, the law, like the science, stands in favor of the officer.
It’s hard to dispute that the police officer is at times the single most powerful person in the criminal justice system. We want them on that wall. We’ve extended to police a sweeping benefit of the doubt: If, in the pressure-cooker of a possible life-or-death experience, an officer believes he is in danger, he is allowed to shoot to kill, even if that’s a mistake. And in reviewing the incident in court, the guiding question is this: Would a “reasonable officer” have made the same decision?
If the brain scientist is right, though, the choice to shoot involves powerful primitive instincts which demand we survive any threat to our lives. In that split second, when there’s a battle waging in an officer’s head between reasonableness and survival, all bets are off.
And when the primitive brain wins, maybe the “reasonable officer” isn’t reasonable at all. Maybe the only chance to be reasonable is in all the tiny decisions made before he feels forced to squeeze the trigger.
Rick Sheldon saw Andi for the first time across the bar at the Tradewinds Lounge in St. Augustine, back when you could smoke indoors. She was 5 feet 4 with dark blonde hair. They dated a year and married.
He was a paramedic for Jacksonville Fire Rescue, and she was a hospice nurse. Extreme environmentalists, they lived off the grid in unincorporated St. Johns County, not far from St. Augustine. They set up rainwater storage and solar panels and put a box out so people could leave unwanted pets. She drove a Prius and raised farm animals and tended to a vegetable garden. They called their isolated place in the woods Hummingbird Acres.
On April 14, 2012, they returned from a vacation. They had dinner and drinks and then some more drinks, and they got into an argument.
After nightfall, Rick drove his pickup north on a dirt road about 4 miles, toward a fishing pond he likes. But his truck got stuck. He called his boss at the fire station to say he wouldn’t be at work the next day and that he was fighting with his wife. The fire chief called 911 to see if somebody might swing by to check on the couple. He told police Sheldon had a gun.
What happened next was like a game of telephone, where a story gets bent out of its original shape. Like Daytona Beach’s chief Chitwood said, the first information tends to be incorrect.
Around 10:40 p.m., dispatch sent several units toward the Sheldons’ rural home, down a long gravel lane. Informed by the fire chief that the Sheldons were possibly armed, the deputies parked more than half a mile away and decided to walk to the house in the darkness. One alerted the rest he was going to use night-vision goggles. All to check on a domestic dispute. Sheldon’s lawyers would later say their approach “suggests a tactical response to what was categorized as a ‘welfare check.’”
“Supposedly the wife has a (gun) and is chasing the male who took medication,” a dispatcher told them. “I don’t know if he’s hallucinating or what’s going on.”
Rick had taken medication, but was not hallucinating. His wife was in bed, not chasing him with a gun.
“Is she chasing him with a firearm for any particular reason?” a deputy asked.
“It’s all third hand (information),” the dispatcher replied. She said they had phone numbers for both Rick and Andi.
When deputies reached Sheldon’s property, one called Rick, who was at least 3 miles away. Rick told him what happened, and that it wasn’t a big deal, that everyone was safe. Rick said he was fine, and he was now laying on the hood of his truck with a flask, enjoying himself.
“We want to get in contact with your wife first at the house just to, um, ’cause, you know, we’ve got deputies out here and it’s dark, you know, and we don’t want her to think that we’re somebody prowling ... so how’s the best way that we can make contact with her?”
Rick relayed her phone number. The deputy said he’d have a colleague call. But it was too late. The other deputies had surrounded the porch in the darkness. Gunshots rang out.
“Shots fired,” the deputy can be heard saying on the phone. “Oh, sh--!”
“Who the hell is firing shots?” Rick said. “Deputy?”
The deputies fired 24 shots and hit Andi Sheldon eight times. She fell in her own doorway, wearing only panties and eye-glasses and holding a shotgun she used for protection.
Sheriff David Shoar told the media that Andi came out of the house and was “repeatedly told to drop the weapon.”
“She focused on one deputy in particular and when she pointed the shotgun directly at him, he and his colleagues opened fire, which neutralized the immediate threat.”
Neutralized the immediate threat.
That’s what bothers Rick Sheldon. His wife was a threat only because deputies startled her from bed. She had no way of knowing it was the law stalking through her yard, he said. Why didn’t they simply call her on the phone? Why didn’t they pull up the driveway with their car lights flashing?
Let’s agree that no officer wanted to kill a hospice nurse that night.
Using the best information they had, as misunderstood as that information was, the jumpy deputies went to help a couple, and they were walking through the darkness of a situation they perceived to be dangerous. And a sleeping, nearly naked woman heard something outside her rural home and grabbed her gun and opened the door.
Lawful, and awful.
On the fourth anniversary of her son’s death, June 11, 2016, Natasha Clemons again passed out placards that said “Indict Shaw + Sasse” and “We Will Have Justice” and “Rodney’s Life Mattered” as activists filled a park by a bayou in Sarasota, not far from where he died. Again, the mothers of the lost showed up to support each other.
Since Mitchell’s death, Clemons earned her nursing degree from St. Petersburg College and wore her cap and gown to his grave. She won the 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Individual Service Award. She started the Rodney Mitchell Foundation to raise awareness of racial profiling. She said she has met about 400 mothers, mostly black women, whose sons have been killed by police.
She filed a lawsuit for wrongful death in 2014, and appealed when a federal judge ruled in favor of the deputies. The appeals court, too, found that the deputies were not in violation of the law for using deadly force because a “reasonable officer” could have perceived Mitchell’s Jeep posed a danger to the deputies when it accelerated.
Clemons still cries when she thinks about it. She said she wasn’t after money, and refused a settlement offer.
She didn’t believe the Sheriff’s Office’s version of the story, and wanted the deputies to answer her questions.
“Why did they kill my son?” she asked.
She has become a small part of a large nationwide movement that has grown up in the past few years to challenge the system. By bringing lawsuits. By staging protests. By taking count and looking for better ways to police.
There’s nothing to suggest the shooting numbers in the past two years have fallen, but newspapers and websites have started tracking police shootings and in-custody deaths. Bills are pending in Congress that would mandate data collection on use of force and other police-community encounters; provide money for body cameras; train police in de-escalation and preservation of life; and prohibit the transfer of dangerous weapons from the military to police.
The Department of Justice announced last year that it would spend four years monitoring Miami’s 1,300-member police force after a critical review of shootings between 2008 and 2011. Newly-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, however, recently indicated he might end the federal oversight of some police departments earlier than expected.
The Miami Beach chief and Palm Beach County sheriff are using guiding principles from the Police Executive Research Forum. The president of America’s largest police chiefs organization issued a formal apology to minorities “for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”
In August, Mike Chitwood was elected sheriff of Volusia County, with nearly double the employees he had as chief of Daytona Beach.
“The policy flows from the people that have the power in the community,” Chitwood said. “That’s the only way change is going to ever occur, is when there’s a problem and people come forward and say we’re not going to tolerate this.”
“We weren’t having these conversations, and police chiefs and thought leaders weren’t having these conversations a few years ago,” said Gupta, the former DOJ official. “Policing ultimately is not going to be solved at the federal level. There are things the Fed needs to do, but there are also things happening at the local level.”
The local level then:
At the park in Sarasota, the mothers stood near a bust of King and shook their fists and spoke the names of the dead into a bullhorn, into the void of their American justice. Spend enough time with them and they start to betray a chorus that may never end. No justice, no peace, they shout.
“Rodney Mitchell is my son,” Natasha Clemons said when it was her turn. “He is my life.”
The little boys in the front stopped wiggling and looked up at her face as a police car rolled down the street.
About the reporter: Ben Montgomery is a general assignment reporter based in Tampa. He joined the Times in 2006 after working at several other papers, including the Tampa Tribune. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting and won the Dart Award and Casey Medal for a series called “For Their Own Good,” about abuse at Florida's oldest reform school. Contact him at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.