The Pasco Sheriff’s Office maintained for years that the 2014 shooting of an unarmed black man was justified because the man ignored repeated orders to raise his hands and surrender.
But that explanation is contradicted by a previously unreleased video, obtained Thursday by the Tampa Bay Times, which shows deputies opened fire in seconds with little provocation.
The video, as well as court documents in a civil case, depicts a small-scale drug bust turning violent in an instant. It shows an undercover deputy coaxing the man, Jerry Dwight Brown, into the officer’s car. Then other deputies surround the car to arrest Brown.
Seconds later, the deputies fired four shots. Three of them hit Brown, including one in the back.
The video was recorded from the driver’s seat, directly next to Brown. It does not appear to show deputies giving Brown time to surrender.
In all, about 11 seconds pass between the time deputies approach the car and the final shot.
The Sheriff’s Office has repeatedly declined to release the portion of the video depicting the shooting. Today such videos are public records in Florida, but they were exempt from release in 2014, when this video was recorded.
After Times reporters told the Sheriff’s Office that they had obtained the video independently and intended to publish it, Lindsay Moore, the office’s general counsel, said the “video portions depicting the death of Mr. Brown are clearly confidential and exempt from public disclosure.” Moore said publishing the video would be “in violation of the law.”
The Times published the portion of the video showing the moment the shots were fired along with this report on tampabay.com.
The video’s release comes amid national protests over police violence against black people, spurred by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.
The shooting in Pasco County occurred July 1, 2014, weeks before Eric Garner’s death in New York. The killing of Brown, a 41-year-old black man, sparked a protest that drew more than 100 people in Zephyrhills but attracted little attention after that.
At the time, the deputies told investigators they thought Brown was reaching for something.
In February, the Sheriff’s Office settled with Brown’s widow, Tresa Brown, for $262,500 without admitting liability in the case.
Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said her office settled “out of respect for Mr. Brown’s family.” Hunter stressed that the State Attorney’s Office had determined the use of force was justified in 2014 and that an internal Sheriff’s Office review cleared the shooting. She declined to allow the Times to speak with either of the deputies who shot Brown. Both are still employed by the office.
Tresa Brown and her attorney did not return multiple requests for comment.
On the day of the shooting, Jerry Dwight Brown was working at his stepfather’s tire shop in Zephyrhills.
He had sold pills a few times to an undercover sheriff’s deputy in the weeks before his death, according to court records. Deputies planned to make a final drug purchase from Brown and then arrest him.
The video, from a hidden camera on the undercover officer, shows the deputy driving up to Big Ben’s New and Used Tires. The officer persuades a reluctant Brown to get into the undercover car.
Brown sat in the passenger seat, then showed the officer what was allegedly 90 Hydromorphone tablets he pulled from his right pocket. As the undercover officer began counting out more than $2,000, a van full of deputies approached the car, although Brown did not appear to notice.
Deputies surrounded the car, yelling orders that on the video are hard to understand. Within a second or two, Brown tried to leave the car and opened the door slightly. A deputy immediately pushed it closed.
Deputies said they saw Brown reach toward his right pocket. In the video, what he’s doing is unclear.
A second later, Sgt. Clinton Cabbage shot Brown through the windshield. The video shows the windshield glass shattering. Cabbage hit Brown in the abdomen, then fired two more shots, one of which hit Brown in the buttocks, according to investigative and court documents.
Depositions show another deputy then opened the car door, preparing for Brown to be pulled from the car.
A deputy identified in court records as Det. Daniel Green can be heard yelling for Brown to put his hands up. Immediately, another shot is heard.
Green’s bullet hit Brown in the back, according to a report from the state attorney’s office citing the medical examiner.
Brown later died at a hospital.
At the time, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said the way Brown acted made deputies fear for their lives.
“When they said ‘Show me your hands,’ the suspect should’ve showed us his hands,” Nocco told reporters. “He didn’t.”
The State Attorney’s Office found Brown’s “failure to comply” meant the shooting was justified. But the office also “strongly” urged deputies to “review the video of this event with an eye towards conducting further operations of this type in such a manner as to minimize the risk of the need to utilize deadly force.”
Reached by phone late Thursday, Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett declined to comment, saying he did not have enough time to "adequately review the material."
But an outside policing expert who reviewed the footage at the Times’ request said he didn’t see any justification for the shooting.
The deputies could have taken cover and given Brown clearer instructions, said Walter Signorelli, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who retired from the New York City Police Department as an inspector and also practiced criminal law.
“It happened so fast,” Signorelli said. “It’s hard to justify.”
U.S. District Court Judge William F. Jung, who presided over the lawsuit by Brown’s widow, also described the video as “troubling” in an order.
“The ‘take down’ did not happen as planned, and Brown was dead or dying about 10 seconds after it started,” Jung wrote.
He said Brown appeared to have been “shocked” by the thumping and yelling and presence of the officers. Jung noted that Brown’s pills were found after the shooting in his right pocket.
“Deputies have maintained that consistent, clear commands were given to Brown, who defied them,” Jung wrote. “This is not accurate. The commands were almost entirely indecipherable. Green’s command before Green shot was audible, but left no time for compliance.”
The judge — who referred to Brown as a “small-time pill dealer, with no violent tendencies shown in any recent period” — also questioned whether Brown could be considered a threat after the first shot, calling the second and third bullet wounds “problematic.”
Jung wrote that Brown had been convicted of an armed robbery and kidnapping about 17 years before the shooting. But deputies were wrongly told that Brown had two or three additional armed robbery arrests.
Jung rejected a motion by the defendants to toss the case. An appeals court upheld his order and noted that “Brown was given no time to comply before Green shot him.”
Both Cabbage and Green had been involved in prior shootings, according to news reports.
In 2009, Cabbage shot and killed a man who had opened fire on a SWAT Team, striking Cabbage in his bullet-resistant vest.
Green in 2009 shot and wounded an unarmed woman. The Sheriff’s Office said she had lunged toward a deputy, and deputies thought she could have been armed. In 2013, Green was one of five deputies who shot at a man who had fired at deputies. The man was killed.
Records provided by the Sheriff’s Office do not show subsequent shootings by either Green or Cabbage. Cabbage is now a special operations lieutenant and Green is a code enforcement corporal, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Today, next to the parking lot of the tire shop where Brown was killed, there is a memorial with a white cross.
Brown’s stepfather, Robert Sims, keeps the memorial looking tidy. He looks at it every day and thinks of Brown.
“They just did him wrong,” said Sims, who said he emerged from his office after the first few shots and had to watch his stepson be loaded onto a stretcher. “It was a setup. He was unarmed.”
Sims said he’s hopeful that protests happening across the country right now will make law enforcement agencies change how they operate.
“It’s not just here,” Sims said, motioning toward the parking lot. “It’s everywhere. It won’t change overnight but it’s happening too regularly.”