Friday, February 23, 2018
Public safety

Internal review: Tampa SWAT team acted properly in fatal pot raid

TAMPA — A Tampa Police Department internal review has concluded that SWAT team officers acted appropriately when they fatally shot a 29-year-old Seminole Heights man during an unsuccessful drug raid.

The review, documented in a 415-page file provided to the Tampa Bay Times in response to a public records request, found that police Cpl. Eric Wasierski and Officer Edwin Perez "feared for their lives and the safety of others" when they shot Jason Westcott to death in his home on the night of May 27.

Police had been conducting a narcotics investigation of Westcott and hoped to find large quantities of marijuana in his house. The search yielded only 0.2 grams — or about $2 worth — of pot, in addition to paraphernalia such as a digital scale, plastic baggies and jars with marijuana residue.

During the raid, according to the internal investigation, officers opened the door to Westcott's bedroom and found him on the other side with a loaded, 9mm Taurus Slim pistol. Wasierski and Perez said they immediately shot him because he began to raise the weapon.

An autopsy corroborated their account, indicating that Westcott was initially shot with his right shoulder pointed forward and his right arm lifted partway up his body.

"Based on a thorough review of the totality of the circumstances and the evidence present, it is clear that both Wasierski and Perez were in the unfortunate situation of having to utilize deadly force for their protection and the protection of others," Deputy Chief Brian Dugan wrote in a memo.

The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office had concluded in June that the police officers were justified in shooting Westcott.

Westcott's mother, Patti Silliman of New Port Richey, said she doubted the Police Department's ability to review its own actions and was still troubled by "inaccuracies and inconsistencies" in the official account of her son's death.

"Words cannot describe the pain that this tragedy has caused our family," Silliman said.

Westcott, a motorcycle mechanic who lived at 906 W Knollwood St. with his boyfriend, had no state criminal record besides driving offenses and a misdemeanor marijuana possession arrest dating back 11 years.

No neighbors had complained to police about the house, although Westcott himself called police late last year because he learned that several men were plotting to break in and rob him.

In February, according to police records, an informer began buying marijuana from Westcott on behalf of narcotics detectives, purchasing $160 of pot over about four months.

Detectives said they learned from the confidential source that Westcott had a gun with him during the drug deals, and so enlisted a tactical response team to take him into custody.

The internal review gives the following account of the raid:

On May 27, a BearCat armored car carried SWAT officers to Westcott's home. As they exited the vehicle and walked toward the front door, Cpl. Bryan Felts, the team leader, loudly announced, "Police, search warrant," according to multiple officers present.

At the door, Felts knocked and announced the police team at least three more times, team members said. When nobody answered, the officers let themselves in — the door was unlocked.

Westcott's boyfriend, Israel Reyes, was on a couch in the living room. The first officers inside moved past him to the closed bedroom door.

Wasierski, who was carrying a shotgun, opened the door and immediately saw Westcott on the other side raising a gun.

"I immediately saw … a white arm with the pistol coming toward me," he later told investigators. "So I'm fearing this guy's about to shoot me or this — this gun's gonna fire at me. So I squeeze two off."

Wasierski then fired a third round. Perez, behind him, fired his handgun twice. Westcott was hit by one bullet from the pistol and two shotgun slugs; his fatal torso wound came from a shotgun slug, according to the autopsy report.

Wasierski said he did not have time to tell Westcott to drop the gun, while Perez said, "I don't recall if I had enough time to say 'drop the gun' or anything."

Reyes was taken into custody and later released. He was not charged with a crime.

Contact Peter Jamison at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow @petejamison.

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