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No charges for Tampa cops in fatal shooting of black man suspected in drive-by

A state attorney's report said Jonas Joseph, 26, pointed his gun at police and they fired back 125 times.
Police photos from the scene of a fatal shooting show where bullets struck a car driven by Jonas Joseph, 26. A new report says Joseph was trying flee when he crashed and pointed a gun at officers. Five of them fired the seven fatal shots, the report said.
Police photos from the scene of a fatal shooting show where bullets struck a car driven by Jonas Joseph, 26. A new report says Joseph was trying flee when he crashed and pointed a gun at officers. Five of them fired the seven fatal shots, the report said. [ Hillsborough State Attorney's Office ]
Published Jun. 25, 2020
Updated Jun. 25, 2020

TAMPA — No charges will be filed in connection with the fatal shooting by Tampa police of Jonas Joseph, a 26-year-old black man suspected in a drive-by shooting who police said pulled a gun on officers after ramming a patrol car, the State Attorney’s Office announced Thursday.

Joseph was killed in a volley of gunfire from officers who pulled him over about 11:30 p.m. on April 28 along the 3400 block of E Palifox Street in Jackson Heights.

The details of what happened next, though, have been hotly debated by Joseph’s family and local activists in the midst of nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice following the May 25 death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

“The last thing officers want to do is use deadly force,” Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said in a news release Thursday. “Regardless of the circumstances, we acknowledge the grief of the family and community.”

After crashing his car, police said Joseph grabbed a gun and fired up to three shots at the seven officers surrounding him. That’s why five of the officers returned fire, emptying 125 rounds at his vehicle and striking Joseph seven times in the head, neck, torso, lower back and leg.

In a six-page report released Thursday, the State Attorney’s Office did not confirm if Joseph fired his weapon at police that night, but said it wouldn’t matter under the law because the facts of the case proved a “reasonable belief by the officers that they were in fear of imminent death or great bodily harm when they used deadly force.”

“Under Florida law, this means the use of deadly force is justified, and there is no legal basis for criminal charges against any of the officers,” the report said.

But Joseph’s family, and Black Lives Matter organizers speaking on their behalf, say the report and hundreds of pieces of evidence released by the State Attorney’s Office on Thursday raise even more questions about whether Joseph posed a threat to the police that night.

“The stories have changed so much that it’s becoming confusing to test the credibility of law enforcement, especially the Tampa Police Department,” a family spokesman, Pastor Carl Soto, said at a news conference outside the police agency’s downtown headquarters after the report was released.

Soto, vice president of Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk, Inc., said the report conflicts with the description released by Tampa police after the shooting. No questions were taken at the news conference, but with Joseph’s family in attendance, organizers called for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to take over and vowed legal action.

“We do know for a fact this is murder,” Soto said. “They have changed their entire story. The story they’re saying now does not make absolutely any sense.”

They pointed to the lack of video evidence from that night, and the State Attorney’s finding that all of the 118 shell casings recovered from the scene came from the responding officers’ weapons.

None of the shell casings were recovered from either the fully-loaded handgun found in Joseph’s pocket or the Taurus 9mm handgun investigators found on the dashboard of his car. Police said that gun was still in Joseph’s hand when, after their initial spray of gunfire, he attempted to climb out the driver’s side window and was fatally shot in a second round of gunfire. Investigators pulled Joseph’s fingerprints from the gun and noted that there were five bullets in its 15-round chamber after the shootout.

“Although a lack of shell casings from Joseph suggests he did not fire his gun, it is equally plausible that casings were simply never located,” the State Attorney’s report said. “Even assuming that Joseph did not fire the gun in his hand, his action of pointing a gun at police officers would be enough to establish that the officers were in imminent fear for their lives or the lives of others.”

Jonas Joseph, 26, was trying to escape when he pointed a gun at police and was shot to death in a barrage of bullets, the State Attorney's Office said.
Jonas Joseph, 26, was trying to escape when he pointed a gun at police and was shot to death in a barrage of bullets, the State Attorney's Office said. [ Facebook ]
Pastor Carl Soto, vice president of Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk Inc. speaks on behalf of the family of Jonas Joseph during a news conference Thursday outside Tampa police headquarters.
Pastor Carl Soto, vice president of Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk Inc. speaks on behalf of the family of Jonas Joseph during a news conference Thursday outside Tampa police headquarters. [ ANASTASIA DAWSON | Times ]

No video of the incident from bodycams or dashcams exists, the report said, because no one at the scene was equipped with them. Only 60 out of the nearly 1,000 officers and 93 of 1,200 department vehicles have the equipment, the report said.

The only known video of the incident is from a FaceTime conversation with no audio, shot by a someone who lives nearby, the report said. Audio was recovered from a ShotSpotter surveillance microphone approximately 3½ blocks away, the report said.

The report said those recordings, along with multiple civilian witnesses and police radio communications, corroborated the officers’ story.

According to the report, the April 28 encounter began when several officers on patrol identified Joseph’s vehicle as matching the description of a white Chevy Impala involved in a drive-by shooting the week prior, both with the same license plate. The officers followed Joseph, calling for backup, and conducted a traffic stop when he pulled into a fenced back yard on N. 35th Street. When police officers asked him about the incident they said Joseph looked nervous and thew the car in reverse, slamming into a patrol car that pulled in behind him. An officer broke out the driver’s window with a baton before Joseph then sped off, knocking over multiple fences as he drove through back yards and then crashing into a tree, the report said.

Seven officers ran toward the car and shined their flashlights inside. Each said he saw Joseph pointing a chrome or silver handgun at them through the rear windshield, the report said. All seven heard the sound or saw the muzzle flash from one to three gunshots fired from inside the car and shattering the rear windshield, the report said.

Related: Family waits for answers after man dies in shooting involving Tampa police
Police photos from the scene of a fatal Tampa shooting include one of the two pistols recovered from a car driven by Jonas Joseph. Whether Joseph opened fire on police wasn't confirmed during an investigation, but he did point a gun at officers, the State Attorney's Office said.
Police photos from the scene of a fatal Tampa shooting include one of the two pistols recovered from a car driven by Jonas Joseph. Whether Joseph opened fire on police wasn't confirmed during an investigation, but he did point a gun at officers, the State Attorney's Office said. [ Hillsborough State Attorney's Office ]

Five officers opened fire toward Joseph in a barrage of gunfire as Joseph ducked down in the front seat, the report said.

“It appears that the Impala shielded Joseph from much of the initial gunfire,” the report said.

Related: Florida cops who use force keep names secret with Marsy’s Law

The State Attorney’s Office said it is not releasing the names of the nine officers on the scene because they are victims of an aggravated assault by Joseph and subject to Marsy’s Law — a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2018. The law is meant to protect crime victims, but it deprives the public of information that had long been made available in Florida under the state’s public records law. The State Attorney’s Office did not release the race or races of the officers who fired

Dugan told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year that his practice is to ask officers if they will give permission to release their names, as allowed under Marsy’s Law. Dugan said then that he doesn’t think the law should apply to officers acting in the line of duty.

In at least once case, Dugan added, two officers involved in a shooting did change their minds and waive their protection.

Asked by the Times whether Dugan spoke to the officers in the Joseph shooting about allowing the release of their names, police spokeswoman Jamel Laneè said in an email, “Yes, Chief Dugan spoke with the officers.”

She referred questions to the State Attorney’s Office about why their names weren’t released.

That agency’s spokesman, Grayson Kamm said that would happen only if the officers had chosen to opt-out of the protection.

Officials said none of the officers have any past findings of improper use of force. However, two of the officers have been involved in a previous use of deadly force; both of those instances were found by the State Attorney’s Office to have properly followed policy and state law.