Sheriff's office, police apologize for riot response to disturbances
Elaine Morgan, Of The Tampa Tribune;
(WINTER HAVEN, Fla.) -- A local NAACP president considers filing civil rights violation complaint in conjunction with a disturbance.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office is sorry about sending too many deputies to quell a few fights.
And the Winter Haven Police Department is sorry that innocent bystanders, including children, were inadvertently exposed to Cap-Stun, a pepper spray used to subdue unruly suspects.
However, representatives of both law enforcement agencies supported as appropriate the actions taken by officers at a Feb. 22 disturbance at Northeast Recreation & Cultural Center, based on information received and the behavior of the people they arrested.
Findings from an internal investigation by the Winter Haven Police Department were released at a public meeting Tuesday at the center.
Police Chief David Romine said officers were misinformed about the scope of the Feb. 22 disturbance. Rhonda Glass, a Winter Haven police dispatcher, called it "a riot" in asking for backup from the sheriff's office, he said. Glass received a reprimand, and the department is reviewing its educational program for dispatchers, Romine said.
"There was no riot at this location," said Romine. "There were some fights but no riot."
But he said that the actions of police on the scene, including use of the irritating spray in arresting Micheal Gerard Miller, 29, were in accordance with proper procedures and the information the officers had been given.
"Their response was proper and lawful," he said.
The Feb. 22 incident involved responses by eight uniformed officers and four plainclothes officers from the Winter Haven department, 18 to 20 sheriff's office units, a helicopter and a police dog.
Two people besides Miller were arrested, a 19-year-old man and a 12-year-old boy.
Maj. Gary Hester, commander of the East Division for Polk County Sheriff's Office, apologized for "that many units showing up for an event that did not need that many units."
He added, "We were here to protect the people and the property," pointing out that a fire department also may send more help than is needed in a case where the extent of a fire is not yet known.
"They may respond with all their trucks when all they needed was a fire extinguisher," said Hester.
Black residents representing Concerned Citizens of Winter Haven, an organization formed in the aftermath of the Feb. 22 incident, and the Winter Haven Branch of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People, voiced angry dissatisfaction with explanations from police.
Macy V. Butler, president of the NAACP branch, said that he has contacted state and national NAACP attorneys about the possibility of filing a civil rights violation complaint.
Butler said that 22 affidavits provided by witnesses to the disturbance have not been released to police but will be made public later.
However, some witnesses were present on Tuesday with questions, mostly centering on whether police react in the same way to disturbances in a black community as they do in white communities.
The residents wanted to know if officers would exit cars with shotguns, wear body armor, send a helicopter or use equivalent force in making arrests when dealing with white suspects.
Hester, Romine and other police representatives replied, in each case, that they would respond in the same manner regardless of the race of the person being arrested.
Several expressed dismay that their children have learned to fear the police because of the Feb. 22 incident and that the future of a "fine young black man" like Miller could be ruined by a history of an arrest. Miller was a volunteer at the center for the cultural celebration and was, witnesses stated, trying to break up fights between children just prior to his own arrest by Winter Haven police.
Lawyer Grant Lacerte Jr. described himself as a friend of Miller and said Miller "is a person who loves Winter Haven."
The Rev. Howard Mathis, vice president of the NAACP branch, charged that "an unidentified plainclothes, undercover officer" was seen by witnesses "jumping on the back of Mike Miller." This officer, he added, was wearing a pink shirt, short pants, gray cap and a ponytail.
Mathis charged that the Winter Haven Police Department failed to release any information on the identity of this officer, and Mathis feels that this is a vital omission in resolving unanswered questions.
Romine stated that there were no undercover officers on the scene of the Feb. 22 disturbance and that the only plainclothes officer involved in the arrest of Miller was Andrew Volker.
"But he (Volker) does not fit that description," Romine said.
Police say they used pepper spray after the suspect cursed, threatened and resisted them.
Barbara Jackson, a drama teacher at Jewett School of the Arts, was in charge of a drama group that presented the play, "Martin Luther King: Nonviolence on the Move," at the center prior to the disturbance. She called for police and residents to resolve their differences.
"I think we need to put our dukes down for a second and just breathe and work through this," said Jackson. She said that the police should identify the troublemakers in their departments "and get rid of them."
Gay Henry, a Winter Haven police captain who is black, said he was disappointed at the negative reactions of residents to the Feb. 22 incident.
"Every time we have an incident in our black community, we respond very harshly," he said.
Henry called for residents to participate in the "citizen orientation" program that allows any interested person to ride along with an officer on patrol.
"You get to see some of the things he is faced with during his daily routine," said Henry.
City Commissioner Mike Easterling told the residents that the actions of police on Feb. 22 might have helped to stop fighting at the center in time to prevent possible injuries or even deaths.
"We will never know what might have happened if the police had not shown up and acted as they did," he said. "The situation could have escalated into that full-blown riot."
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