The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has opened an investigation into the arrest of a 25-year-old man after dash camera footage appears to show deputies beating, choking and yanking him by the hair while he lay on the pavement.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Friday that the internal investigation began about two weeks ago into the May 25 incident that resulted in the arrest of Jimarez Donshay Reed outside his girlfriend's home near Pinellas Park. Pinellas-Pasco public defender Bob Dillinger brought it to the sheriff's attention through an internal affairs complaint.
Gualtieri gave few details about the incident, citing the ongoing investigation, and urged people not to pass judgment until it's complete.
"Anything can look bad in a vacuum," the sheriff said. "People shouldn't judge anything by one isolated piece of video evidence."
Reed's girlfriend, who witnessed the encounter, and Michele Rayner, a lawyer representing Reed, said they had seen enough to know this was a clear example of excessive force.
"It was beyond excessive," said Melessa Sanford, who has been dating Reed on and off for about a year. "I couldn't even breathe. I was in a state of shock."
Sanford, 38, said she was having a small gathering at her home that night. Reed and another man weren't getting along, and Reed was asked to leave.
Someone called law enforcement. When a deputy pulled up, Reed went to his car to leave, Sanford said. The deputy drew his gun, telling Reed to put his hands up.
Gualtieri would not comment on whether deputies pulled a gun, but said they responded under the impression Reed had a gun in his waistband. They found one in his car, but the sheriff said he did not know if they found one on Reed.
"They had a lot of information that the person was armed and dangerous and they were doing what they felt they needed to do," Gualtieri said.
It was when more deputies arrived that the situation went awry, Sanford said.
The next thing you know, there's four, five, and they're on top of him on the ground," she said.
A copy of the dash cam footage was provided to the Tampa Bay Times by Rayner, who is representing Reed in potential civil action against the Sheriff's Office. A microphone was muted for most of the struggle.
It shows a man, clearly distressed, bouncing behind a car, his arms stretched across the hood, when a deputy arrives. Another deputy is already there, ordering Reed to the ground.
Reed lies flat on his stomach and the other deputy approaches from behind. He gets on top of the man and begins to punch him in the head.
Another deputy grabs Reed's hand. The deputy on his back yanks his dreadlocks, lifting his chin.
A deputy places Reed into a chokehold. Another arrives and crouches, joining the struggle, apparently hitting Reed with his handcuffs.
More deputies come into the frame. Five minutes into the struggle, they remain on top of Reed.
Then the audio comes back on.
"Don't resist, relax," a deputy says. "Okay?"
"Don't kill me please," Reed says shortly after. "Let me go."
Within seconds the deputies begin to step away. Reed is in handcuffs.
Reed faces charges of carrying a concealed firearm and resisting deputies with and without violence. He is in jail in Hillsborough County for several drug charges and a resisting arrest charge.
Dillinger said Friday that someone in his office sent the video to him a few weeks ago. Troubled, he sent a complaint to the sheriff — a route he takes only once every couple of years.
"I did not understand the violence that was involved in this, and it in fact made some of the national videos seem somewhat tame," Dillinger said. "I just didn't understand why they started wailing on this guy."
Both Rayner and Sanford said they believe the incident was racially motivated. Reed is black. Gualtieri said there were white and Hispanic deputies at the scene but wasn't sure whether there were any black deputies present.
"In my experience, they treat some suspects differently than they treat others," Rayner said.
The sheriff said Rayner should wait for the facts to come out in the investigation.
"People need to just stop running around throwing barbs and making accusations just to get headlines . . . unless they have proof of it," he said. "If they have proof of it, she should come forward."
The two have sparred in the past. Rayner represented the families of teenage girls who died in a stolen car crash in a cemetery pond in St. Petersburg in March 2016. She has publicly questioned the deputies' actions, saying they may have chased the girls into the pond and then neglected to try to rescue them.
The video found its way to state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, a few weeks ago.
"At first glance it appears to be excessive force," said Rouson. "I have spoken to Sheriff Gualtieri. He has assured me of a full and complete internal affairs investigation and that heads will roll if the conclusion agrees with the optics."
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @kathrynvarn.