Video: Police probe UOF in arrest of Fla. suspect who severed cop's spine

Inquiry underway into whether officers' use of force was justified in the pursuit of a suspect who is accused of crashing into a cop and badly injuring him


By Adam Sacasa
Sun Sentinel

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — The high-speed pursuit was finally coming to a conclusion when all the officers quickly converged on the dark-green Mitsubishi, their guns drawn.

As a helicopter recorded the events from above, the police pulled three people from the car. At least two officers apparently began kicking one of the car's occupants on the ground, the helicopter's footage shows. Moments later, the person on the ground is seen shaking.

On Tuesday, the Boynton Beach Police Department released the aerial footage recorded in the Aug. 20 pursuit. An inquiry is underway into whether the officers' use of force was justified. Boynton police have enlisted the help of the FBI and the Palm Beach State Attorney's Office to review the matter.

The video doesn't show many things, including how the Mitsubishi earlier that night had struck an officer, severing the officer's spine in two places.

Officers used stun guns on all three suspects when they didn't comply with officers' orders, an arrest report said.

Pending a review, the officers haven't faced disciplinary action and are still working, Boynton Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said.

"The process of determining if our officers' actions were justified lay in clearly distinguishing between what we know, what we can prove, and what we believe," Katz said. "We know that our officers used force, and we know they reported this use of force before being made aware of the existence of this video account."

"But the question is: Was the level of force reasonably objective based on the level of resistance they experienced, and the level of fear officers felt as they confronted these subjects who they believed had just killed one of their co-workers."

Katz said the video provided no insight into those questions. The helicopter camera drifts away at times, limiting what is seen on camera. And hindering the quality of the video is that it was shot at night, relying on thermal-imaging technology.

The chase started as a traffic stop about 2 a.m. Aug. 20, when police were trying to pull over the Mitsubishi in the 1000 block of North Seacrest Boulevard in Boynton Beach.

The driver, Byron Harris, 26, of Lake Worth, instead sped away, police said.

At some point, Boynton Beach Police Officer Jeffrey Williams was waiting to deploy a device to puncture the Mitsubishi's tires. Police said Harris intentionally drove toward the officer, hitting him with the passenger side of the vehicle, according to the police report.

The chase reached speeds of about 100 mph as Harris got onto I-95. After exiting the interstate in Lake Worth, the car eventually stopped and police moved in to pull the car's occupants out.

Harris and his two passengers, Jeffrey Braswell, 25, and Ashley Hill, 18, all were taken into custody. A resisting arrest charge was dropped for Braswell, but Hill was found guilty of the same charge.

Meanwhile, Harris faces charges of aggravated battery on an officer, fleeing and eluding, leaving the scene of a crash.

Harris' lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Shawnee Lawrence, said the helicopter footage was excluded from the case's original discovery request. Authorities are required to turn over all evidence in a case to the defense. Discovery allows defense lawyers to adequately prepare for trial.

Lawrence said she found out about the video after reading recent news media reports, and that the video should have been made available in response to her first discovery request.

"I learned that [the Boynton Beach Police Department] knew of this video ... approximately two weeks after the incident," she said. "Why it was not listed as part of discovery baffles me."

She said her client vehemently denies hitting a police officer the night of the incident, and that he still suffers from the injuries he sustained after the chase. He has damage to his eyes and had severe headaches, she said. "He was beaten very badly," she said.

The biggest question for her client, Lawrence said, is why he was beaten so badly instead of just being detained. "He doesn't understand why he was beaten so severely," she said. "The way I look at it is, it's for the judge to decide to sentence him and it seems he was punished before he was given an opportunity to have his day in court."

Police arranged Tuesday's press conference to ensure the video "was released with some context," Katz said.

It was a Palm Beach sheriff's helicopter that recorded the Aug. 20 incident. The Sheriff's Office notified Boynton Beach police about the existence of the video within one or two days of the incident, Katz said.

Katz said Boynton police spent about 10 to 12 work days collecting any reports associated with the incident. And then that led his department to enlist the help of the FBI and prosecutors in Palm Beach County to further review the case, Katz said. Seeking help from the other agencies will be helpful, because the helicopter footage is "somewhat choppy," Katz said.

The names of the officers seen using force in the video haven't been released.

"If I had the ability to really discern everything that was happening in that video, if I had the ability to ... ascribe specific behaviors to specific individuals, I wouldn't have asked for the outside review," Katz said.

Katz said he wanted to release the helicopter video and results of Boynton police's initial review earlier. But he said he couldn't do that because of the ongoing criminal-justice process.

One additional benefit of allowing outside organizations to review the footage is a lack of bias, he said.

Williams, the injured officer, is still undergoing physical therapy after the crash severed his spine. The crash caused him to lose a piece of his ear and left his face permanently disfigured, Katz said.

"During his stay at Delray Medical Center's trauma unit, caring medical personnel spent over two hours digging pieces of asphalt from his face and body," Katz said.

Copyright 2015 the Sun Sentinel 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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