Arrested Tampa muralists say jail deputies abused them

One man says he was beaten. Another says he was harassed. The Sheriff's Office says it's investigating.
Matthew Yampolsky, 35, shows injuries he said he sustained during a beating by Hillsborough County deputies at Orient Road Jail in Tampa. He was arrested Saturday at Curtis Hixon Park as a group prepared to paint a Black Lives Matter mural.
Matthew Yampolsky, 35, shows injuries he said he sustained during a beating by Hillsborough County deputies at Orient Road Jail in Tampa. He was arrested Saturday at Curtis Hixon Park as a group prepared to paint a Black Lives Matter mural. [ Matthew Yampolsky ]
Published Aug. 12, 2020|Updated Aug. 13, 2020

TAMPA — Three of the seven people arrested while painting a mural at Curtis Hixon Park on Saturday say they were mistreated by Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies during the booking process at Orient Road Jail.

One, Matthew Yampolsky, 35, said he was beaten by six deputies. According to medical paperwork he provided to the Tampa Bay Times, he suffered a concussion. The others, Kai Robinson and Julien Gibbs, both transgender men, say they were groped and harassed because of their gender identity.

Yampolsky and Robinson are considering legal action against the Sheriff’s Office, which on Wednesday declined to confirm or deny the allegations. A spokeswoman said there have been no formal complaints made, but that the agency is talking to witnesses and deputies involved, as well as reviewing surveillance video.

A public records request by the Times for booking video for Yampolsky, Robinson and Gibbs was still pending Wednesday.

“We take allegations of mistreatment and abuse very seriously and detention supervisors immediately began conducting an internal review,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. “We are continuing to look into this matter.”

Yampolsky said he was dragged into an empty holding cell after asking a jail nurse to sanitize a blood pressure sleeve. Deputies repeatedly slammed his face into the concrete floor and put pressure on his neck and back while pulling his hands and feet behind his head, he said.

“The whole time I was just screaming and crying like a little kid,” Yampolsky said. “This is the first time in my entire life that I legitimately thought I was going to die. I thought I was never going to see my wife again, never going to see my kid again.”

Later, he felt nauseous, had tunnel vision and no feeling in some of his fingers. He asked guards for medical attention, but they ignored him, Yampolsky said.

Robinson, 22, said he witnessed some of the incident. He said it started with a deputy pulling Yampolsky out of a chair and shoving him into a plexiglass window. When they moved Yampolsky into the holding cell, Robinson could hear him screaming that he couldn’t breathe.

“It really did sound like he was going to die,” Robinson said. “You could hear the raw terror in his voice. For a brief moment it was like, I’m listening to the police kill someone.”

Yampolsky’s medical paperwork, from a doctor visit Sunday, shows he has multiple abrasions on various parts of his body. Photos he provided to the Times show bruises on his face, wrist, arms and back. He said he still doesn’t have feeling in his thumbs.

For Robinson, the booking process was a “full-on abusive experience,” he said. During a pat-down, a female deputy grabbed his genitals through his pants. She then recoiled and asked him what he was wearing. He told her he didn’t know what she meant. Then the woman looked inside his pants and then grabbed him again, he said.

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“I said that’s just my vagina, I don’t have a penis as much as it looks like I do,” Robinson said. “She said, ‘I still don’t trust it.‘ It was a dehumanizing experience, to get called an ‘it’ and have my genitalia handled in front of everyone like that.”

Yampolsky said he wept as he watched what happened to Robinson.

Gibbs, a 26-year-old who uses the gender-inclusive pronouns they and them, said they experienced similar discrimination: “I had to kind of assert I’m a man, not a woman. They were kind of brushing it off, still misgendering me and calling me, ‘Miss.‘”

Robinson said he understands the experience of being searched during the booking process is inherently invasive, but the deputy should have treated him with more respect.

”I understand you lose your rights when you go to jail,” he said, “but you shouldn’t lose your humanity as well.”

Related: Seven arrested for mural at Tampa's Curtis Hixon Park

The arrests at Curtis Hixon happened as a group of about 30 people gathered to paint a mural in support of Black Lives Matter. They had not secured a city permit to do so and as soon as they started, Tampa Police officers showed up, Yampolsky said.

Robinson said he put down his roller and sat down so police would not perceive him as a threat and was one of the first people arrested. He can be seen being dragged by two officers in a video provided to the Times, which also shows Tampa activist Jae Passmore being shoved by another officer.

“They just walked silently up to us,” Robinson recalled. “The only thing I was told was, ‘You’re coming with me.’ There was no method to the madness. It literally seemed like they were just grabbing people.”

Arrest reports say officers saw the seven people “throwing paint in a reckless manner along a city sidewalk.” The paint caused about $500 in damage and will require “extensive labor” to remove, the reports say.

Paint is seen splattered on a sidewalk at Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. Seven people protesting police brutality were arrested there a day earlier on criminal mischief charges.
Paint is seen splattered on a sidewalk at Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. Seven people protesting police brutality were arrested there a day earlier on criminal mischief charges. [ MEGAN REEVES | Times ]

All were charged with criminal mischief, a misdemeanor. Yampolksy was also charged with resisting an officer without violence. His arrest report says he refused an officer’s verbal commands and tensed and pulled away while being taken into custody.

Meanwhile, a video shared with the Times shows four officers rush toward Yampolsky as he stands on a sidewalk. They push him up against a police car to handcuff him as he yells out his wife’s phone number to someone offering to call and tell her what had happened.

Someone in the background can be heard asking, “What’s the difference between that mural and this one?” — a reference to the pro-police “Back the Blue” mural painted on Madison Street earlier this month. It also was completed without a permit, but no one involved has been arrested.

The Black Lives Matter mural at the park was a sort of social experiment, Yampolsky said. The group “wanted to see if there was a double-standard in Tampa.” And based on their experiences, Yampolsky, Robinson and Gibbs all believe there is.

Police spokesperson Jamel Laneé said it was the police department’s understanding that the Back the Blue group was “going through the approval process” for its mural. After it was complete, city officials said organizers had applied for, but not obtained, a permit.

The group is under investigation for violations to Florida law and a city ordinance that prohibits placing something on a city road or sidewalk without a permit, Laneé said. But the situation is different than the events in Curtis Hixon Park, which officers observed to be “happening with what appeared to be malicious intent to damage city property,” she added.

“It is clear (the Back the Blue group) met with city staff to attempt to obtain approval for the placement of public art versus individuals who showed up to the park this past Saturday with paint hidden and concealed in backpacks with rollers, who then threw paint over the sidewalk,” Laneé said.

On Aug. 6, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said at a press conference that any group that paints without a permit will be arrested for criminal mischief. Mayor Jane Castor declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the Curtis Hixon arrests.

Gibbs said police didn’t answer when people asked why they were being detained. They didn’t find out until arriving at the jail.

The arrest marked Gibbs’ second involving protest action. They were among several protesters arrested by Tampa police on July 4 during a protest on Dale Mabry Highway. Gibbs was charged with blocking the street and resisting arrest, court records show. The case is still pending.

Robinson and Gibbs said the experience at Curtis Hixon proved the point they were trying to make in the park: The criminal justice system treats people differently.

“It’s very telling they show up and immediately arrest us and the people who did the Back the Blue mural are still out there, they didn’t get arrested,” Gibbs said. “It really speaks to what side the police are on. They’re usually on the side of the people who support them or the interests of the people who are already in power.”