Arrest of prominent Tampa activist prompts criticism of Tampa police

An attorney says the way officers treated activist Jae Passmore is "completely unacceptable" as tensions build during recent demonstrations.
Black Lives Matter and pro-law enforcement demonstrators taunt each other in front of Tampa Police Headquarters on Wednesday. Protesters have criticized the arrest of a prominent activist later that evening.
Black Lives Matter and pro-law enforcement demonstrators taunt each other in front of Tampa Police Headquarters on Wednesday. Protesters have criticized the arrest of a prominent activist later that evening. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Aug. 13, 2020|Updated Aug. 13, 2020

TAMPA — A prominent Black Lives Matter activist is facing misdemeanor charges of battery and resisting arrest without violence after a confrontation with a pro-police supporter on Wednesday.

But the way the Tampa Police Department handled the arrest of Jae Passmore has drawn criticism from her attorney and fellow demonstrators.

The incident took place at about 7 p.m. outside City Hall, according to an account given by a Tampa police spokeswoman. Passmore was with about 40 people from the Tampa People’s Protest group who had gathered out front. At the same time, about 20 members of a pro-police Back the Blue group were demonstrating in front of police headquarters on N Franklin Street.

The two groups came together on N Franklin Street and engaged in a “verbal confrontation,” the police spokeswoman said.

Passmore “intentionally walked up to the victim and intentionally struck the victim against his will on the back of his head with an open palm,” the arresting officer wrote in the arrest report. The activist’s attorney, Gretchen Cothron, shared it with the Tampa Bay Times.

Related: Tampa Bay drivers have run into protesters. Why haven’t they been arrested?

But a video of the encounter released by police doesn’t appear to show Passmore touching anyone’s head.

In the video, a man from the Back the Blue group steps past Passmore as she’s walking and recording with a cell phone. The man then steps into her path, appearing to cut her off. Passmore pushes him from behind on the shoulder.

The man contacted police and gave a statement along with a witness. Police did not release the name of the man because he is the victim of a crime and subject to Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2018. The law is meant to protect crime victims, but deprives the public of information that had long been available under Florida’s public records law.

Officers saw Passmore and approached her on E Kennedy Boulevard. According to the arrest report, she “willfully and intentionally actively resisted by tensing her arms and pulling away from officers as well as making her body limp to prevent officers from escorting her to their patrol vehicles.”

Related: Arrested Tampa muralists say jail deputies abused them

Tampa police released video taken by body cameras worn by two officers who took part in the arrest. As one approaches Passmore, she backs away, then falls.

“Come on, man,” Passmore says to one of the officers, looking up at him from the ground.

“I didn’t do anything,” the officer responds.

“You pushed me,” Passmore says.

“I didn’t push you,” the officer replies.

At least one bystander video posted to social media Wednesday, taken from behind the officers, appeared to show the officer kneeling on Passmore’s neck or head. In the body camera video, the officer’s knee can be seen on her back and shoulder as he pins her down to handcuff her.

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Police said Passmore complained of hip pain and was taken by ambulance to St. Joseph’s Hospital. There, officers gave her a notice to appear in court on the two charges.

Videos posted to social media show Passmore was on the ground for at least 12 minutes before paramedics arrived. Protesters at the scene of the arrest, and later on social media, said officers used unnecessary force to take Passmore into custody.

Cothron declined to comment on the charges, saying she was reviewing evidence in the case. But she called the officers’ treatment of Passmore “completely unacceptable.”

The attorney says Tampa police know Passmore was injured during a June 21 protest in Hyde Park Village, when a pickup driver swore at demonstrators, drove over a median and struck her. She suffered a concussion and an injured ankle and pelvis in that incident, which police say remains under investigation. No arrests have been made.

“She feels like the injuries she had were just made worse,” Cothron said. “She’s traumatized.”

The attorney said Passmore returned to the hospital Thursday after experiencing dizziness and head pain.

Passmore was at the scene of another contested arrest at a June 27 protest that was captured on video posted to social media. The driver of a black Volkswagen slowly drove through demonstrators blocking S Albany Avenue in Hyde Park.

The driver approached a small group, stopped, then drove forward. The sedan sped off with a protester clinging to the hood, videos showed. Tampa officers arrested the protester but let the driver go, a decision criticized by demonstrators.

Wednesday’s arrest is the latest development in ongoing tensions in Tampa between activists calling for police reform, pro-police demonstrators and the police department. The most recent flashpoint has been over downtown murals.

Earlier this month a pro-police group painted a “Back the Blue” mural in the middle of E Madison Street outside Tampa Police Headquarters before obtaining the proper permitting. No one from that group has faced sanctions.

Related: There’s a ‘Back the Blue’ mural at police headquarters, but Tampa didn’t okay it

On Saturday, seven Black Lives Matter activists who attempted to paint their own mural as Curtis Hixon Park were arrested and charged with criminal mischief. Three told the Times that they were mistreated by Hillsborough County deputies during the booking process at the Orient Road Jail. The Sheriff’s Office said it is investigating the complaints.

“It seems the Tampa Police Department protects people who agree with the Tampa Police Department and not the people who speak out against the department,” Cothron said. “It seems to me like they’re trying to silence (Passmore).”

Times staff writer Josh Fiallo contributed to this report.

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.