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Clearwater officer fired after investigation reveals use of unnecessary force on 13-year-old (w/video)

Surveillance video shows the events that led to Clearwater police Officer Michael Leonardo being fired for using excessive force while detaining a 13-year-old boy accused of battery.
Published May 25, 2017

CLEARWATER — When Michael Leonardo and two backup officers arrived at the youth shelter on the morning of April 2, the 13-year-old boy was still simmering from a fight.

He'd calmed down in the time it took the Clearwater police officers to respond to reports that he was kicking walls and screaming in the shelter after a dispute with a roommate. They arrested him on a battery charge and led him outside with his hands cuffed behind his back.

The prospect of going back to juvenile detention had riled him up again, and he cursed at the officers, according to an internal investigation. But that behavior didn't warrant what happened next, Chief Dan Slaughter said Wednesday.

Surveillance video shows Leonardo grabbing the teenager across the upper chest and slamming him face-first onto the concrete sidewalk just outside the front doors of the shelter. The takedown maneuver left the boy with a range of facial injuries from scratches to a chipped tooth — and ended the officer's career.

Slaughter fired Leonardo, a four-year veteran of the department, at the conclusion of an internal investigation that found he used excessive force on the boy, whom police did not identify because of his age.

"There are some mistakes in this profession that cannot be overlooked," Slaughter told reporters during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

An officer called paramedics, who took the boy from the Family Resources shelter at 1615 Union St. to Morton Plant Hospital for treatment. Leonardo's explanation for the takedown was that he felt the boy was trying to get away.

The boy told investigators that he tripped on his shoe, which he thinks could have come off as resisting to the officer.

Leonardo, 33, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The backup officers, Cpl. Christopher Miller and Officer Scott Boeckel, were handed down training and counseling for their conduct after the takedown, Slaughter said.

The officers, worried about contaminating the police car with the boy's blood, removed him from the cruiser and sat him on the pavement. The video shows him writhing on the ground as Miller and Boeckel look on. Slaughter said a more appropriate course of action would have been to leave the boy in the cruiser and monitor him there.

"Obviously, the takedown maneuver is the crux of our conversation today, but the juvenile rolling on the ground is not something I'm very proud of," Slaughter said while watching the video with reporters. And later: "We have enough funds to clean a cruiser if we have to."

No one filed a complaint against the department in the case. Reviewing certain uses of force is standard practice for the department.

Slaughter said there are several factors to consider in assessing whether the force was appropriate for the situation, such as if the person is armed or was trying to overpower the officer. As an officer making split-second judgment calls, factors such as a person's size and weight should come into play.

In this case, Leonardo was 2 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than the teenager, Slaughter said. He pointed out that the video showed Leonardo had a firm enough hold on the boy as well as two backup officers to help him if needed, both of whom told investigators they agreed Leonardo had alternatives.

"Temperament is part of this job," Slaughter said. "Making those decisions under pressure is part of this job."

Leonardo also agreed after reviewing the video that he had better options, according to the investigation.

The officer's complete personnel file was not available Wednesday, but a summary showed he had not faced penalties beyond counseling for infractions such as acting impolitely to a citizen during a call for service and causing a preventable accident with his cruiser.

Slaughter added that Leonardo is a father and Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan.

"I don't really believe it's appropriate for me to villainize him," he said. "In this particular scenario, he just didn't handle himself appropriately."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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