Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Public safety

One St. Pete officer fired, others disciplined for shooting at cars

ST. PETERSBURG — One officer was fired and a handful of others were disciplined Wednesday for a pair of shootings that sparked outrage earlier this year.

Police officials determined both incidents, which involved officers shooting and injuring fleeing suspects, broke the department's rule against firing at moving vehicles.

The punishments doled out by police Chief Chuck Harmon, however, were hardly identical.

In the first case, in which a group of officers shot at a car that came at them as they tried to serve a search warrant, Harmon disciplined a sergeant and made two other officers work with the training and research division.

In the second case, the chief issued two-week suspensions to two officers who fired at a stolen car that fled from them. He also took the rare step of firing a third officer who shot at the teens inside as the car traveled down an alley.

"To me they were very different situations," Harmon said.

The Rev. Manuel Sykes, head of the St. Petersburg NAACP chapter, said he was encouraged by the agency's actions.

"I think it really does send a message to our community that there will be justice," he said. "I hope it's a sign of systemic change."

The department has had a long-standing section in its use of force policy that says officers should not fire at a moving car unless someone inside is armed and all other "reasonable means" to avoid the danger have failed. The policy also cautions officers to avoid stepping in front of cars.

Both of those things happened on April 15, Harmon said.

On that day, three officers were tracking a stolen Nissan Altima. Officers Richard Bishop, 31, and Brandon Bill, 32, approached the car after it backed into an alley behind 1831 26th St. S.

Officer George Graves, 30, took up a position nearby.

In the alley, Bishop and Bill commanded the occupants — 19-year-old Shaquille Sweat and a 15-year-old female passenger — to give up.

Sweat appeared to cooperate, then lurched the car forward as Bishop crossed in front of it. Bishop fired five rounds.

The car struck a tree or pole and stopped before backing up. That's when Bill, who was brushed by the vehicle, started to shoot. He fired 13 times.

Then Graves fired two shots from about 90 feet away. He told supervisors the car turned toward him as it left the alley. One of Graves' bullets struck Sweat. The other struck a home.

"His testimony … wasn't believable and wasn't in line with what the evidence showed," Harmon said. "It was determined the car was not a threat to him nor anyone else when he decided to fire."

Bill, who has been at the department five years, and Bishop, who has been there two, were suspended. Graves, who came to the agency in 2008, was fired.

"We'll see what the arbitrator has to say about this," said Joseph Ciarciaglino, Graves' attorney.

Harmon said another shooting, on March 8, was different.

In that case, Sgt. Shannon Halstead, 36, and two undercover detectives fired at a car that came at them as they served a search warrant at a suspected drug house at 3810 18th Ave. S.

Several officers at the scene that day gave the same story: Shortly after arriving at the house, a car in the driveway accelerated toward officers. One officer was struck in the leg, though his injuries were minor.

The officers, two with handguns, one with a high-powered rifle, struck the Toyota Camry five times. Police chased the car to an alley near 37th Street and 13th Avenue S.

A passenger was injured in the leg, and driver Marques Rowe, 21, faces several charges.

Harmon acknowledged the officers had limited ability to escape from the car, but said they still broke the rules.

Harmon put a notice in Halstead's file.

The undercover detectives, in lieu of discipline, must help research and develop training for high-risk search warrants and policies about shooting at cars.

After the shootings, organizations including the NAACP and Urban League said the incidents exacerbated tensions between police and predominantly black Midtown.

Mayoral candidates Rick Kriseman and Kathleen Ford criticized the shootings at the first mayoral debate last month.

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

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