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Crime

Lauderdale officer suspended for shoving protester has history of using force, drawing weapons

 

The Fort Lauderdale patrol officer who inflamed a tense demonstration on Sunday, knocking over a seated protester just before a peaceful protest against police abuse turned violent, has been reviewed by internal affairs for using force 79 times in his roughly three-and-half years on the force, according to department records.

Most notably, Steven Pohorence has drawn his firearm more than once a month on average since he was hired in October 2016, according to personnel records released by the law enforcement agency on Wednesday. But the internal affairs reviews, which are standard after officers use force in arrests, also show he never fired his weapon or was found to have violated any department policies.

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Pohorence, a white officer who was captured on cellphone footage shoving a seated black female protester, received generally positive performance reviews for working in mostly black high-crime neighborhoods and once saved a disturbed naked woman from jumping off an I-95 overpass. His personnel file didn’t show any complaints from the public but his file also suggests some past friction. He was sent for mandatory training to improve communication skills in October 2019.

“He needs to work on his interactions with the public with emphasis on public speaking,” his supervisor wrote on his evaluation.

At least one expert on policing said the number of use-of-force reviews alone should have raised red flags in the department.

“One of the things departments need are early warning systems,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which studies police department policies and practices across the country. “So if you have an officer who seems to be pulling his gun disproportionately, you can bring him in.”

Wexler pointed to the 17 complaints filed against the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, which led to the nation’s massive protests the past nine days, and how those complaints were basically ignored. That officer, Derek Chauvin, had been on the force nearly two decades.

“That’s what’s missing in this country,” said Wexler. “A way of flagging things.”

During some instances in which Pohorence drew his weapon, the records show, he was apprehending someone wanted for serious crimes such as a robbery, vehicle theft or an outstanding warrant. The records show the pattern of brandishing his firearm increasing with him drawing a weapon 42 times in the past 16 months. In January of this year, Pohorence drew on suspects four times in one week. But three of those instances turned out to be minor violations or misunderstandings.

In one instance, Pohorence pulled his gun during a traffic stop of what he believed was a stolen vehicle. It turned out, according to the report, that the person driving the car bought a tag from someone because his license had been suspended and he needed to get to work.

On Jan. 19, Pohorence and another officer drew their weapons after they “observed a stolen vehicle.” The vehicle turned out to be an overdue rental car occupied by a homeless woman identified only as Ms. Reddick.

“Ms. Reddick failed to return the rental as she was living out of it,” said the report, which cleared Pohorence of any policy violations noted. “No one was injured during the incident.”

One serious allegation against Pohorence and another officer came in 2017. They were investigated for sexually assaulting a suspect who claimed the officers penetrated his anus. Pohorence was cleared, according to the report, after witness accounts indicated the suspect fabricated the story and no video of the incident could be retrieved.

Pohorence also received three commendations from the department in April and July 2019 and in January of 2020. One of them was for stopping a naked woman from jumping off an I-95 overpass. Another was for apprehending a man wanted for second-degree murder who had barricaded himself inside a home, before SWAT arrived.

Shane Calvey, president of Fort Lauderdale’s Fraternal Order of Police said he couldn’t speak about Pohorence’s actions on Sunday while it was under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But he also defended the officer’s record, saying there was nothing out of the ordinary regarding the number of times Pohorence had been reviewed for use-of-force or had drawn his weapon.

“There were no policy violations found,” Calvey said.

Pohorence was suspended Monday by Police Chief Rick Maglione after cellphone video captured him making his way through a crowd of protesters and then shoving a seated woman, a move that drew rebuke from a fellow black female officer, Krystle Smith. Maglione said he believed Pohorence was one of several Fort Lauderdale cops who went to assist another officer who had called in for help as police began clashing with protesters outside a downtown parking garage where law enforcement was staged.

Pohorence’s shove seemed to ignite the nearby crowd, which began pelting officers with water bottles and other projectiles. Police responded with foam bullets, flash grenades and tear gas. At least one woman was badly injured by the outburst by police. LaToya Ratlieff, 34, was hit just above the eye with a rubber bullet, causing it to swell and creating a bloody gash. She was rushed to a hospital by other protesters.

Thursday afternoon Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said Broward County State Attorney Mike Satz was looking into the possibility of criminal charges against Pohorence. The mayor called the officer’s actions “disturbing” and “offensive.”

“He escalated the incredibly tense situation that was developing after the peaceful protest ended,” the mayor said in a prepared statement.

The mayor also praised Smith’s actions. “It is officers like Krystal Smith who help prevent tragedies like what happened in Minneapolis. Officers should stand up and speak up when they see colleagues engage in questionable behavior.,

The explosive confrontation, which happened just before dark, came after a day of peaceful protests that began near the Riverwalk in Huizenga Park.

The crowd was protesting the killing of unarmed black man George Floyd, 46, who was killed after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more almost nine minutes as three other officers watched and did nothing. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder. On Wednesday, nine days after Floyd was killed the three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting the murder.

The inactions of the three officer’s in Minneapolis were in sharp contrast to Fort Lauderdale’s Smith, who was captured on video and in photos grabbing Pohorence after he shoved the woman and berating him as she directed him away from the scene. She’s been praised on social media for her quick reaction.

Smith has been with the department for a decade and has had consistently excellent reviews. She’s received dozens of commendations from the department and from the community, among them for crime reduction, recovering stolen vehicles, and for her work during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and a visit from Vice President Joe Biden. She was admonished once for accidentally leaving a rifle in the trunk of a pool car.

Though Maglione wouldn’t blame Pohorence for the civil unrest that engulfed part of downtown Fort Lauderdale on Sunday night, he said “it could have added to what was going on.” As for Smith, the chief said during a press conference that “She did what you are supposed to do when you see either adrenaline or emotion or some kind of interaction going south... that is our job to do, to intervene.”

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