Tampa chief faults state attorney for ‘playing judge and jury’ in protest cases

Police Chief Brian Dugan said Andrew Warren is making decisions that should be made by the courts. Warren said his office has taken a consistent approach.
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan (R) observes his officers interact with protesters as Cpl. Jason Tkach watches approaching protesters as they demonstrate against police brutality on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Tampa.
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan (R) observes his officers interact with protesters as Cpl. Jason Tkach watches approaching protesters as they demonstrate against police brutality on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sept. 29, 2020|Updated Sept. 29, 2020

TAMPA — Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan is raising concerns about Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren’s decisions to drop charges against some protesters.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Dugan called the decisions inconsistent and said Warren is making calls that should be left up to the court.

“Why is our state attorney playing judge and jury?" Dugan said. “Let’s present the evidence and let a judge or jury decide what the standards are going to be for what’s appropriate in our community."

Dugan’s comments come after he learned that Warren’s office was dropping charges against two protesters who blocked traffic in South Tampa in June. Warren has also declined to prosecute dozens of protesters Dugan’s officers have arrested since May, when marchers started taking to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism.

“The dilemma for law enforcement,” Dugan said, “is how do we enforce the law when there’s no consistency on what’s going to get prosecuted?”

Related: Protesters, don’t block roads; drivers, don’t hit protesters, says Tampa police chief

Dugan said he has requested a meeting with Warren and Mayor Jane Castor “to sit down and give me some direction on how we should move forward on these situations.”

In a statement released Tuesday in response to questions from the Times, Warren said his office has taken a consistent approach in charging decisions. He said his prosecutors are not a “rubber stamp” for police and have more time to make measured decisions guided by a higher burden of proof than officers in the field.

"The way our office has handled protestor-related cases — protecting First Amendment rights, charging people for violence and looting, and encouraging de-escalation and civility — has been the one constant in how the protests have been handled,” Warren said.

“The protests put officers on the street in a very difficult situation, and as TPD has gone back and forth between a hands-on and hands-off approach to figure out how best to handle the protests, we have remained consistent in our charging decisions.”

Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, right, speaks during a news conference on June 15 to announce his decision not to prosecute dozens of protesters arrested on charges of unlawful assembly during a Black Lives Matter march in downtown Tampa on June 2.
Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, right, speaks during a news conference on June 15 to announce his decision not to prosecute dozens of protesters arrested on charges of unlawful assembly during a Black Lives Matter march in downtown Tampa on June 2. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

The Times reported last week that Warren was dropping charges against Jason Stuart Flores, who wound up on the hood of a Volkswagen sedan when the driver rolled through a group of protesters on Albany Avenue on June 27. Police arrested Flores on charges of felony criminal mischief, unlawful assembly, obstructing a highway and resisting a law enforcement officer without violence.

Police later arrested another man, Getulio Gonzalez-Mulattieri, in connection to the same incident on charges of felony criminal mischief, assault, battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting an officer without violence. An arrest report says Gonzalez-Mulattieri got in front of the Volkswagen to prevent the driver from passing and began hitting the car, denting the hood and shattering the windshield.

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An attorney listed in court records as representing Gonzalez-Mulattieri did not return two messages left at his office by the Times.

Pointing to video from the scene posted online by WMNF 88.5 FM, Dugan said Flores intentionally walked into the street to block cars. Dugan said the Volkswagen driver kept moving to get away from protesters who were damaging his car.

“What do I tell people that are stuck in these situations now?” Dugan said. “Andrew Warren needs to be the one to tell them what to do because he’s setting the standard for what the law is.”

Dugan has drawn criticism from protesters who think his department has been too heavy-handed with demonstrators and should be arresting more people who drive through protests. Other critics have taken to social media to accuse the chief of failing to do his job to keep the streets clear.

Dugan has said his department has tried to give some leeway to protesters who block streets to spread their message. He said officers typically monitor the demonstrations and give warnings to move based on the length of time the road is blocked and the effect on traffic.

In a statement last week after the Times story on the Flores charges, Warren’s office explained why prosecutors were not pursuing the charges again him and prosecuting only the battery on a law enforcement charge against Gonzalez-Mulattieri.

The Volkswagen driver “was moving very slowly and tried to maneuver through protesters blocking traffic," the statement said. Flores chose not to move out of the way and sat on the car’s hood as the car inched into him. The driver proceeded with Flores on the hood.

There was no evidence that either person intended to cause harm, Warren’s statement said.

“Both people made decisions that escalated the situation, and basic courtesy by either person could have minimized or avoided this conflict,” the statement said.

Warren’s office said charges aren’t appropriate for Gonzalez-Mulattieri from the encounter with the Volkswagen because the evidence showed he hit the car with his arm after the car bumped into him. After that, however, Gonzalez-Mulattieri disobeyed instructions from law enforcement and pushed an officer, the statement said.

Dugan said his detectives did additional investigation in the Flores case at the request of Warren’s office and asked for a meeting with prosecutors to present evidence, but prosecutors did not directly respond. Police learned about the decision to drop the charges against Flores from a Times reporter, Dugan said.

The reporter had spoken with Flores' attorney, Gretchen Cothron, who had received an email from a prosecutor on the case. Cothron said last week that “justice was served” by Warren’s decision and that Flores should never have been arrested.

Dugan said it’s “disturbing” and “disappointing" that the prosecutor informed the defense attorney before the police department and the victim.

In Tuesday’s statement, Warren said he has had regular conversations with Dugan and others at the department about filing decisions in protest cases. In the Flores case, Warren said, he spoke personally with officers on the case and his prosecutor notified the defense attorney as a professional courtesy.

“Ideally, we would have spoken to Chief Dugan in addition to the involved officers beforehand, and we will continue to do so going forward where possible,” Warren said.

As examples of his office’s consistency, Warren noted that police arrested protesters who painted a sidewalk in Curtis Hixon Park and people who painted over a “Back the Blue” mural in front of the Police Department’s downtown headquarters. But they did not arrest people who blocked the street and painted the original mural without a permit, Warren said. He declined to pursue charges in any of the cases.

“We handled all three incidents consistently rather than based on the message of the mural,” he said.

Warren also cited the case of prominent community activist Jae Passmore, who police arrested in August after she pushed a pro-police demonstrator. Police did not arrest the man who pushed Passmore in the first place, Warren said, and his office opted not to pursue charges against anyone involved.

“Although the facts known to police at the time understandably influence arrest decisions, the public often views these apparent inconsistencies with skepticism, and so our office’s consistent charging decisions reaffirm that everyone is being treated equally under the law," Warren said.

As for what Dugan should tell people who encounter protesters, Warren said: “I’m surprised that after four months he hasn’t identified a strategy for handling these situations — which is likely making it harder for the officers on the street who have to make difficult decisions without clear guidance from the top.”

Warren said he’s meeting with Dugan and Castor this week “to discuss our collective approach to protests.”

Castor spokeswoman Ashley Bauman did not return an email and a text message seeking comment.

Dugan said that, given divisions in the community over ongoing protests, he expects his officers will have to keep making tough decisions in often tense situations for the foreseeable future.

“There’s no reason to believe any of this is going to end anytime soon."

Similar divides between police and elected prosecutors over protest-related cases are playing out in other parts of the country as well as in Florida, said Matt Puckett, executive director for the Florida Police Benevolent Association. In some cases, prosecutors have overlooked “flagrant behavior,” Puckett said.

“The message it’s sending to law enforcement is that some of the prosecutors in the state right now do not have their back, and that’s concerning to them,” Puckett said. “I’m not going to say that about Andrew Warren, but some of the decisions he’s made, he shouldn’t be the sole decider.”

Puckett said elected state attorneys are by nature “political animals" who have their own constituency bases. Warren, a Democrat in a heavily Democratic county, is up for reelection this year.

“I can understand how someone who has to face the electorate in November wants to err on the side of the citizens,” Puckett said. “I think it’s kind of a false narrative that everyone’s sitting at home on the side of the protesters, but if you’re a politician on the ballot you’re concerned about that.”

• • •

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.