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Palmetto police criticized over death of man in distress

Written by on Sunday, January 7, 2024

Family and activist group stage protest, after two months of silence

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Jan. 5, 2024

Host: Two months ago, Palmetto police officers responded to a call about a man in mental distress. A day later, he was dead. Now, a regional group is staging a protest in the small Manatee County town, asking for an investigation and consequences.

Unidentified voice 1: I can’t see. Can you see? Unidentified voice 2: His arm is in the shadow. He’s reaching out to punch. I see him punching him continuously. Continuously!

Johannes Werner: These are the voices of onlookers behind a window commenting on what they see happening outside the building they are in, apparently in Palmetto. The grainy video shows the flashing lights of two police cars in the dark; the silhouette of a uniformed officer can be seen. According to a group of activists, the video captured an incident involving Palmetto police and their abuse of an African American man suffering from a bout with paranoia.

Here are the known facts so far about the incident. On Nov. 1, somebody made an emergency call to local police about Breonte Johnson-Davis, Sr., a resident of Palmetto with a history of mental health issues who was asking people for help. The caller specified that this was a mental health or drug emergency.

Police in the small Manatee County town responded by trying to subdue the unarmed 36-year old man, using tasers and physical force. The next day, Johnson-Davis died at a local hospital. A police incident report mentioned “overdose”.

The man’s mother contacted Ruth Beltran, an activist with two regional groups, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and the Answer Coalition Suncoast. According to what the mother saw in the police body cam videos she was allowed to see, the officers tased and punched Johnson-Davis multiple times.

The activists say that Johnson-Davis went into cardiac arrest, but that the medics at the scene did not provide immediate help. Johnson-Davis was unconscious for several minutes without a pulse before CPR was started, according to the group.

Ruth Beltran explains.

Ruth Beltran: I learned about the Breonte case from his mother. She reached out to me because someone direct her to our organization, to help her organize for these issues. So I spoke with her, and she told me her story, and how it had been over a month by the time we spoke since Breonte died, and she had received absolutely no information from the Palmetto Police Department. Up to that point, the family had been told that they just had to wait until the end of the investigation, which could take four to six months before they can receive any information, including a police report. They were told that they needed the autopsy report before a police report to be issued. And we know that this is something that is not regular protocol, because police reports are usually made available within 72 hours of any incident. That’s normally what happens. So far, they have been denied the police report. They also went to the hospital to request medical records, so that they can see what happened. And even the hospital has denied them any medical records, pending the autopsy report, which is something that’s very odd. Up to this point, we are over two months after it happened. The only thing that they have been given is an incident report.

JW: In a press release, the PSL said Johnson-Davis’ family is still searching for answers, and that the Palmetto Police Department refuses to provide the family with a police report. Chief Scott Tyler allowed select family members to see a partial video from the officer’s body cam, the PSL says, but he refuses to release all unedited videos or allow the family to record/save the videos for themselves.

Those who have seen the police bodycam video state that officers and medics “joke and laugh as Breonte lays on the ground unresponsive, delayed providing aid, and at least one officer bragged about having the opportunity to try out his new taser.”

The group says Johnson-Davis was never under arrest, and that no officers have been placed on administrative leave.

Palmetto Police Department Chief Scott Tyler responded to inquiries by WSLR News with an emailed statement, saying there is an independence investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“When this incident took place, I asked FDLE to complete an independent investigation of the incident,” Tyler wrote. “This investigation is ongoing. Because this is an open investigation, we are not releasing any reports or camera footage and aren’t commenting on the case. Once the investigation is complete, we will release the findings, reports, and body and surveillance camera footage to the community and our media partners.”

Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler

In a follow-up phone interview, Tyler said he called for the investigation because the incident involved an in-custody death. Asked about why he did not suspend any of the involved officers, he said he will respond based on the FDLE investigation. He said he hopes the results will be forthcoming “in the next couple of weeks”.

Beltran says the FDLE is not an independent party.

RB: FDLE is the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. They are cops, and they are law enforcement. So as long as it is police officers that are investigating other police officers, there’s no way for an investigation to be truly independent. We feel that the investigation should be done by an outside agency.

JW: In the meantime, the activists are organizing a march to the Palmetto Police Department and press conference this Sunday, 2 pm. The group demands “a proper independent investigation of Breonte’s murder”. It also wants the immediate release of the police report and all unedited body cam footage, and the firing of all police officers involved.

Finally, the PSL wants the City of Palmetto to have mental health professionals respond to emergency calls involving mental health or drug issues, instead of police officers.

RB: We are referring to a call program, similar to what Pinellas County and St. Petersburg have in place now. Anytime there is a 911 call, that is a non-violent emergency call involving mental health issues or drug overdose, or even disorderly conduct, anytime there is one of those calls, the police responds with non-police responders and people that are trained mental health professionals. And that is something that has proven to be successful so far.

JW: The organizers say, “Breonte did not have to die. We demand accountability and justice for Breonte now.”

RB: The primary goal is to bring attention to this case, to stop the silent treatment that the family has been receiving. I think it is disgusting and even dangerous for our community to have police departments that can kill your loved one, and completely give families the silent treatment. The Palmetto Police Department has been able to get away with that for two months now.

JW: The group is calling for the march this Sunday, Jan. 7, 2 pm, at the Palmetto Police Department, 820 10th Avenue West, in Palmetto.

Reporting for WSLR News, this has been Johannes Werner.


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