Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Public safety

Romano: Video of man's arrest in St. Petersburg shows two sides of distrust

This story has no heroes, of that I am certain.

The question of whether a villain is involved is far more complicated.

It begins on the night after Christmas as former U.S. Marine Curtis Shannon picks up a pizza after work and heads home to his family.

Somewhere along Dr. Martin Luther King Street S, a St. Petersburg police officer decides Shannon is driving carelessly and puts on his lights to pull him over outside his apartment complex.

Some of what followed was captured on video by Shannon's phone. We do not see the first few minutes of the traffic stop or the finale as Shannon is handcuffed while his wife stands watching with their 4-month-old son in her arms.

What we see instead is an incomplete drama. Four minutes and seven seconds of a standoff that is bound to be filtered and interpreted through whatever life experiences each of us brings to the table.

What seems plain to me is this:

Shannon contributes to his own arrest by not following the officer's instructions.

And the officer escalates the encounter with a needlessly aggressive manner.

"I knew he was going to beat me up before I even got out of the car. I told him I expected him to beat me up," Shannon said. "And when I finally got out of the car, he beat me up.

"The more I interacted with him, the more hostile he got. The more hostile he got, the more I felt I was justified in fearing for my safety."

Officer Bobby Johnson wrote in an incident report that when he initially exited his cruiser, Shannon revved his car engine as if to run him over. Shannon, 26, says that is untrue and claims Johnson, 39, set the tone by refusing to give a reason for the traffic stop.

Whatever the cause, the video captures a battle of will between the two. Shannon sits in his car offering his license and registration through a partially opened window. Johnson refuses to accept the documents unless Shannon rolls the window all the way down or opens the door.

"Open your window or else it's going to go bad for you tonight, boy. Open this window up," Johnson said.

"Your threats are not going to make me open this door any faster," Shannon replied.

"All right, no problem … no problem. You're going to see what's going to happen to you," countered Johnson, who threatened to bust the window.

As other officers arrive, Shannon agrees to get out of the car. He reaches for his phone to continue recording, and you hear officers telling him to drop the phone.

In his report, Johnson says Shannon "charged towards me." The video instead seems to suggest Shannon was pulled out of the car.

"Sir, please stop," he says six times before the video stops.

New St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway saw the video for the first time on Tuesday and said Johnson appeared to follow procedures correctly, although he might have defused the situation by explaining himself better.

Eventually charged with resisting arrest without violence, Shannon posted the video Sunday on the website gofundme.com in an effort to raise money for his legal fees. He said he would prefer not to file an official complaint or a civil action, but is not ruling out either possibility.

Shannon, who is black, said he does not believe race played a direct role in the confrontation with Johnson, who is also black. Instead, Shannon believes it was symptomatic of the distrust between police and residents in predominantly black neighborhoods of south St. Pete.

"I know it might be hard for people to understand why I didn't immediately get out of the car," Shannon said. "But they haven't had the same experiences I've had."

I have no idea of the trepidation involved or the courage required of every officer making a traffic stop. And I can't imagine what it is like to be presumed guilty simply because of a stereotype.

All I know is we live in a sad, sad world when police officers have to think the worst of every citizen, and law-abiding residents can't even trust our best and brightest.

All I know is we need to do better.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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