African-American pastor says police singled him out after robbery

BROOKSVILLE — The workers at the pizza shop were acting strangely, Elijah Harris said, when he walked in Wednesday evening to pick up a pie for his family.

Just moments before he arrived, he soon learned, two men had burst into the Little Caesars on Broad Street demanding money, shouting that they would shoot the workers if they resisted. The thieves then ran off with an undisclosed amount of cash.

As Harris stood with two other customers about 6:30 p.m., two Brooksville police officers burst through the doors. With guns drawn, Harris said, the officers ordered him to get down on the floor.

Harris, 31, is a local minister and corrections officer. He also is African-American.

The two other customers and the store's employees are all white. None of them was ordered to do anything, Harris said Thursday.

"They singled me out among all those people," Harris said. "It was crazy. Just crazy."

The workers and the customers all told the officers that Harris was not one of the robbers, said Otis Hamilton, who was working the register when the robbery occurred.

After some questioning, the officers let him up and left the store.

Brooksville Chief George Turner was out of town Wednesday and reviewed a report Thursday about the robbery. He said he did not find any procedural violations by his officers. Harris said the chief told him there was no mention of him at all in the report.

"It appears Mr. Harris was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Turner said.

The officers' version of events differs somewhat from that of Harris and Hamilton.

According to Turner, the officers said they saw Harris at the door of the Little Caesars. He was alone, they said. It was only after they ordered Harris to the ground, Turner said, that they heard a female employee say that the robbers had run behind the store and into an alley.

"They assumed at that point that (Harris) was the robber," Turner said.

But Harris and Hamilton, 18, both say that Harris was inside the store when the officers arrived. Hamilton confirmed that the officers ordered Harris alone to lie on the floor.

Turner said that as far as he knew, his officers had received no physical description of the robbers from the police dispatcher.

The store has a video surveillance camera, but the tape was unavailable because the robbery is still under investigation.

Harris, pastor of Second Chance Restoration Ministries in Brooksville and an officer at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County, said that what he went through was wrong.

Harris said he didn't file a complaint with the Police Department because he was willing to accept that it was an honest mistake. Now he's not so sure.

He talked with Turner about the incident late Thursday, but he is not convinced that he is getting straight answers.

"I've worked with law enforcement, and there are procedures that you have to follow or you get in trouble," he said.

"He (Turner) told me there's no mention of me being held at gunpoint in the report. That says the police didn't tell him everything they knew that had happened."

Turner said the best way to get to the bottom of it is to have Harris come in and discuss the incident with him and his officers.

"If there's an apology to be made, I'll make it," he said.

Brooksville police later arrested one suspect, John Patrick Maher of Brooksville, on charges of armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. According to a police report, Maher is white and 29 years old.

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 848-1435.

African-American pastor says police singled him out after robbery 11/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2009 11:48pm]

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