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Broward County

How a peaceful march turned ugly: Cops say protesters attacked. Photos tell another story

 

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.

Click to resize

While protesters yelled and held up signs 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. It’s not clear why they chose to stop there. But protesters had been stopping to block intersections temporarily throughout the afternoon.

Interaction between police and protesters at Southeast First Avenue and Second Street at 6:50:06 p.m., May 31. Within the next minute, an officer in the black Toyota radioed for emergency backup saying her life was in danger. Alex Dixon Miami Herald

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.

Interaction between police and protesters at SE 1st Ave and SE 2nd Street at 6:51:36 p.m., May 31. Around the same time, an officer in the black Toyota, pictured in the bottom left of the image, radioed for emergency back up saying protesters were jumping on the vehicle. Alex Dixon Miami Herald

“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.”

Interaction between police and protesters at SE 1st Ave and SE 2nd Street in Fort Lauderdale at 6:51:41 p.m., May 31. Around the same time, an officer in the black Toyota, pictured in the bottom right of the image, radioed for emergency back up saying her life was in danger. Alex Dixon Miami Herald

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.

Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s Computer Assisted Dispatch log from May 31, 2020.

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.”

Fort Lauderdale police provided photos of Ofc. Stylianee Hayes’ vehicle showing footprints on the trunk. Hayes said protesters jumped on her vehicle and sent out a distress call believing her life was in danger, according to her official report. Fort Lauderdale Police Department Courtesy

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 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. Alex Dixon Miami Herald

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. Roughly a block away, the rear passenger-side window of a different police vehicle was smashed. Police said protesters threw rocks. The officer inside was unharmed.

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 Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s training protocols state officers should only aim for the head and neck if deadly force is warranted. 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.

One officer wrote in his incident report that after being struck by an “explosive” and becoming “instantly disoriented” by the concussion, he pointed his firearm loaded with live rounds at protesters — but did not open fire.

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 well-organized.

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?

Protesters and police both started out the day with a plan: stay away from each other.

During mass protests, physical distance reduces the chance of tensions from either side erupting into violence.

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 “less-than-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.

Herald reporters found discarded casings from ‘foam batons’ littering the scene of a George Floyd protest in downtown Fort Lauderdale on May 31. Sarah Blaskey Miami Herald

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.

After a police officer shot LaToya Ratlieff in the face with a foam rubber bullet as she stumbled away from tear gas, other protesters rushed to the aid of the bleeding woman. Fort Lauderdale Police Department protocols say officers should only aim for the head and neck if they intend to use ‘deadly force.’ Tim Becker Courtesy

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 is briefing a congressional subcommittee about her ordeal Monday morning. She has not yet met with police internal affairs investigators.

Her 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.”

Miami Herald staff writer Devoun Cetoute contributed to this report.

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