The call that brought Tampa police officers to the JW Marriott on Water Street last month started off like many others involving a possible suicide.
A man threatened to end his life during an argument with a woman in front of the hotel. The man was seen with a gun heading to a room on the hotel’s 12th floor.
Officers converged on room 1217 and ordered the man and woman to come out with their hands up.
“What are you doing?” the man asked as officers handcuffed him. “You know I’m the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department?”
Taking someone into protective custody under Florida law is already a weighty decision for police. In this case, officers had to decide if they should take in one of their own who wasn’t just a rank-and-file cop, but a leader of one of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a past president of the sheriffs association who was at the hotel at the time for a conference, and Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said Tampa police made the right call to let Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez go on the night when he would later try to take his own life. Experts who reviewed the case for the Tampa Bay Times agreed.
But it wasn’t an easy decision for officers to make, said Jillian Snider, an adjunct lecturer for John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who reviewed body camera footage from that night.
“I think that they were kind of stuck in a really hard position,” Snider said.
Direct evidence needed
The Florida Legislature passed the Baker Act, also known as the Mental Health Act, in 1972. Under the law, police can take a person into custody involuntarily if there is a “substantial likelihood” that, without care or treatment, the person poses a danger to themselves or others.
“Police officers are not health counselors or psychologists or doctors,” said George Indest III, president and managing partner of The Health Law Firm in Orlando, which handles Baker Act cases. ”The purpose of the act is to get the individual into the hands of doctors, and psychiatrists specifically, to evaluate the patient.”
Law enforcement must have evidence to support taking a person into custody.
“You can’t just take rumor, gossip or hearsay,” said Indest, who reviewed the Tampa police report and body camera footage for the Times in the Ramirez case.
He noted police had no witnesses who reported seeing him threaten himself with his gun.
“That is direct evidence that I think would have led them to take him away and commit him under the Baker Act, but we didn’t have that in this case,” he said.
“Do you want to harm yourself right now?”
By about 6 p.m. on July 23, a Sunday, sheriffs and other attendees of a law enforcement conference had gathered in the hotel lobby for a welcoming reception.
Gualtieri said he spoke to Freddy Ramirez and his wife, Jody, at about 6:20 p.m. and they seemed fine.
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But soon after, Tampa police received a call about a man with a gun outside the hotel.
Hotel security told responding officers that two witnesses approached two “sheriffs” and reported seeing a man and woman arguing. During the argument, the man pulled out a gun, put it to his head and said he was going to “end it all” or “end it here,” according to a 22-page Tampa police report on the incident.
Security personnel told police that the original witnesses were no longer on the scene to verify the account and that they didn’t know which agency the “sheriffs” were from. In body camera footage released by Tampa police, a hotel employee can be heard telling officers that he caught the end of the couple’s argument and saw that the man had a gun on his hip, but the employee did not see the man point the gun at himself or anyone else. The employee followed the couple to their room and directed police there.
At about 6:49 p.m., officers, including one carrying a ballistic shield, knocked on the door. Jody Ramirez answered and officers ordered her and her husband out of the room, and questioned them separately.
Officer Jergens Pierre, a supervising officer on the scene, asked Ramirez what happened outside with his wife.
Ramirez confirmed he was armed but said he had not displayed the gun or done anything else with it.
“Just talking about marriage stuff,” he said.
“Do you want to harm yourself right now, sir?” Pierre asked a moment later.
“Nope, no, sir.”
Soon after, an officer removed the handcuffs.
Jody Ramirez told police she and her husband were “just having a heated conversation” that started on the street and was about “stuff that’s going on at home.”
When an officer asked if her husband took the gun and waved it or pointed it at himself, she at first said she didn’t remember because she’d been drinking, then a moment later said no. She said her husband was “fine” and just mad at her because she was “pressing on his buttons.”
Pierre, the officer who questioned Freddy Ramirez, then approached Jody Ramirez.
“Do you have any concerns …,” Pierre began.
“For my safety?” Jody Ramirez said. “No.”
Pierre asked if there was anything that happened that she hadn’t told them. She said again that she felt safe.
“If I felt unsafe I would tell all of you right this minute because that would be my savior,” she said.
Pierre went back down the hall and explained to Freddy Ramirez the call that brought them there and why they responded the way they did.
Ramirez nodded and said he understood.
“We thought we were dealing with a suicidal individual at that moment in time, OK?”
“OK,” Ramirez said.
Moments later, Ramirez thanked the officers and shook Pierre’s hand.
“Due to the unconfirmed third-hand information, and no statements advising that anyone was a threat to themselves or others, it was determined that the male subject did not meet Baker Act criteria,” the police report said.
The report said that a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant who was at the hotel, Cason Ulmer, told Tampa police by phone that sheriff’s office “senior staff” had become aware of the incident and that deputies were “tracking down witnesses” and would be placing Ramirez “under a Baker Act.”
But Amanda Granit, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, told the Times that Hillsborough deputies and other personnel were at the hotel for the conference but did not get involved in the investigation, locate any witnesses or make any determination about whether Ramirez should be taken into protective custody. She said Ulmer conferred with Gualtieri about what had happened.
Granit said by the time Chronister got to the hotel, the Ramirezes had left.
“Sheriff Chronister agrees with what (the Tampa Police Department) did,” Granit said. “With the information they had, they couldn’t have done anything else.”
Gualtieri said he spoke with other sheriffs shortly after the incident to make sure that Ramirez, because of his position, wasn’t given well-meaning but misguided professional courtesy.
He said he was “very satisfied” that Tampa police “got it absolutely right.”
But hotel management still wanted the couple to leave, and Gualtieri called Ramirez to ask him to do so.
Tampa Police Department spokesperson Eddy Durkin said Tampa police Chief Lee Bercaw didn’t have time to be interviewed for this story and instead released a statement from him.
“Tampa Police officers are trained in crisis intervention to assist those who may be experiencing a mental health crisis,” the statement said. “Every call for service related to someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis is addressed with understanding and ensuring that those determined to be in crisis are connected with the mental health resources they may need.”
Snider, who is a former New York City Police Department officer, reviewed the case for the Times and said officers made the best decision they could have given the information they had. She said law enforcement officers are cognizant of the stress that comes with the job and high suicide rates in the profession.
“I don’t think a cop would have extended a professional courtesy that they thought could have led to an officer, or in this case, Director Ramirez, inflicting a gunshot wound upon himself,” Snider said. “That’s where you draw the line of professional courtesy, because you want to do what’s in the best interest of that person.”
It’s unclear what happened in the car just before Ramirez shot himself. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the shooting
A statement the Ramirezes released Sunday through their lawyer said the “reckless allegation” that Ramirez took out his gun that evening “is false and unsupported by either witnesses or camera footage.”
The statement said the couple headed home to “put a bad night’s experience behind them. "
“After the seriously troubling and confusing events that had befallen them, during the drive home, with both still bewildered and distraught, Jody was able to grab her husband’s arm so that the resulting injury was serious but not fatal,” the statement said. “She saved Freddy’s life.”