MADEIRA BEACH — A Pinellas sheriff's deputy shot a 26-year-old man early Wednesday outside John's Pass Village after the arrestee — with his hands cuffed behind his back — grabbed the deputy's weapon, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Deputy Tom Virden was "concerned for his safety and his life," when he shot Dylan Tompkins-Holmes, whose criminal record dates back to 2008.
"We're extremely lucky and fortunate that Deputy Virden is fine — when someone grabs your gun and has your gun in their hand, it could be an absolutely volatile situation," Gualtieri said.
The sheriff added: "Even if (people) are in handcuffs, there's a lot of flexibility. You're able to use your hands and fingers, and you're able to grab."
Tompkins-Holmes underwent surgery at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg and was reported to be in stable condition.
The incident started around 3 a.m. as a drunk-driving investigation: A deputy pulled over a car near John's Pass Village and Boardwalk at 12901 Gulf Blvd. Tompkins-Holmes was in the passenger seat. His girlfriend, who was not identified, was behind the wheel. A deputy suspected she was intoxicated, officials said, and conducted field sobriety tests, a series of physical tests officers use to help determine if a driver may be impaired.
The Sheriff's Office said Tompkins-Holmes appeared to also be drunk and shouted to his girlfriend not to comply. Deputies said he ignored their commands to calm down, kept yelling and moved from the passenger seat to the driver's seat.
Virden arrested Tompkins-Holmes on a charge of obstructing justice. The deputy handcuffed his arms behind his back, the Sheriff's Office said, and put him in the backseat prisoner cage of his Chevy Tahoe.
Inside the vehicle, Tompkins-Holmes complained his pants fell down, officials said, so Virden took the handcuffed man out of the backseat to help him.
At that point, Gualtieri said, as Virden stood between the doorjamb and the prisoner outside the vehicle, Tompkins-Holmes grabbed the deputy's gun and yanked it out of the holster.
The two struggled over the .45-caliber Glock 21 pistol, the sheriff said, but Virden was able to wrestle the gun away and shoot Tompkins-Holmes twice. He was struck once in the stomach and the other gunshot grazed the side of his left torso and left arm.
The Sheriff's Office did not say how close Virden and Tompkins-Holmes were when the shots were fired, or how soon the deputy fired after regaining control of his weapon.
Virden was not injured. Sheriff's officials did not say what additional charges Tompkins-Holmes will face.
Now the Sheriff's Office is investigating the deputy's decision to shoot Tompkins-Holmes. Investigators spent Wednesday examining evidence and searching for witnesses and any video footage of the incident. But Gualtieri said they may not find anything useful from the dashboard cameras inside the two sheriff's sport-utility vehicles at the scene.
According to Gualtieri, the camera in Virden's SUV was recording, but it didn't capture video of the incident because the camera only faces forward. The shooting took place outside the rear passenger door of Virden's vehicle. Investigators were trying to determine if the camera recorded audio of the shooting.
However, the sheriff said a rookie deputy may have accidentally turned off the video system in the other SUV. Gualtieri called it an "error" but said that camera also wasn't facing the incident. Investigators were looking to see if any nearby video surveillance systems recorded what happened.
One source of video they won't have access to is body cameras. While several bay area agencies equip their officers with personal video recorders, Gualtieri opposes the devices.
What's the protocol for a Pinellas sheriff's deputy if someone — even someone in handcuffs — grabs their firearm? Can they use deadly force?
"(The suspect is) using lethal force," said sheriff's spokesman Spencer Gross. "To defend ourselves against that lethal force, we have the right to use lethal force."
University of South Florida criminology professor Lorie Fridell said the legal standard for officers is they must believe their life, or another's life, is at risk of "death or serious bodily harm."
"I'm inclined to think that even if a person was handcuffed, that person may well have the ability to harm an officer with a gun," she said.
Gualtieri emphasized Tompkins-Holmes' criminal history, which includes arrests for DUI, burglary and criminal mischief: "It's not the first time he's been in handcuffs."
Nor do handcuffs guarantee the safety of officers.
The deadliest day in Tampa Bay area law enforcement history was May 19, 1998, when Hank Earl Carr used a hidden handcuff key to free himself while in the back of a Tampa police car.
Carr had already killed his girlfriend's 4-year-old son that day. He went on to shoot and kill two Tampa detectives and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper before taking his own life.
In 2011, a Pasco sheriff's deputy arrested Brittany Miles for drunk driving. Miles slipped out of her handcuffs, got back in her truck, ran over a deputy, then killed 66-year-old motorcyclist Henry McCain. Now 26, she is serving a life sentence.
Times senior news researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird and staff writers Laura Morel and Tony Marrero contributed to this report.