Nothing can fully heal the pain of losing her son, but Patti Silliman has finally found what she calls “something closer to justice.”
This month, the Tampa Police Department reached a court settlement with Silliman for the wrongful death of her son, Jason Westcott.
The decision comes more than nine years after Westcott was killed during a police raid that became mired in controversy. As the death sparked criticism across the country, Tampa police implemented new standards for the use of its SWAT team.
Now, Silliman will receive $75,000 from the city, along with taxable legal costs. But the money was never the highest priority for Silliman. She wanted to clear her son’s name and see change that could help protect others in the future.
“I don’t believe the police department has ever been held fully accountable for what they did to my son,” Silliman, 56, said. “But with the settlement and policy they created after the shooting, it’s like the police are admitting what they did wrong.”
On the evening of May 27, 2014, a Tampa police SWAT team arrived at Westcott’s house near Lowry Park Zoo with a BearCat armored vehicle, a tactical response trailer and officers wearing body armor.
Acting on false information from an unreliable informant, the cops broke into Westcott’s house while he and his boyfriend were sleeping. Minutes later, Westcott was dead, his body riddled with shotgun and pistol bullets.
Police had obtained a warrant to break into Westcott’s house based on the false intel that he was a drug dealer holding a pound of marijuana. Inside, they found 0.2 grams of weed — the equivalent of about $2 worth of the drug at the time.
Neighbors were shocked by the death, and remembered Westcott, 29 at the time he died, as a kind person who would spend hours talking about life with his neighbors. He was a motorcycle mechanic and good with tools, so he became the handyman on his block, previous Times reporting found.
An unreliable source
Informant Ronnie Coogle was paid by Tampa police to incriminate Westcott and other alleged drug dealers. But he often lied out of fear that he would lose his job for not producing enough cases for the cops, he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2014.
Coogle lived next door to Westcott and befriended him. Westcott smoked weed recreationally with his boyfriend and shared with Coogle. Under the supervision of Tampa police, Coogle asked Westcott to sell him small amounts of his personal stash over the course of four months. In total, Westcott sold him less than $200 worth of weed. There’s no evidence that Westcott sold to anyone else.
After a visit to Westcott’s house leading up to the raid, Coogle told a Tampa police detective that he didn’t have any extra weed to sell him. But the officer coerced him into claiming that he bought a gram from Westcott during that visit, Coogle said.
Coercion was a common tactic from the Tampa police officers Coogle worked with, he claimed.
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Mayor Jane Castor, who was police chief at the time of the shooting, said in 2014 that she believed Coogle was telling the truth about Westcott being a drug dealer, but didn’t believe what he claimed about her officers. In 2014, she said the shooting was justified because Westcott had aimed a firearm at the officers who shot him. A policing expert later said there was no evidence that Westcott’s legally owned gun was pointed at anyone.
Months before the raid, Westcott had called Tampa police when he discovered that a man who had visited his house at a party was plotting to rob him for his electronics and his gun. Investigating officers told Westcott that if anyone broke into his house that he should grab his gun and “shoot to kill.” In depositions, SWAT team members said that they weren’t aware of the previous conversations that detectives had with Westcott.
In a statement on Castor’s behalf, the city said the use of force was justified and reasonable.
“Westcott was holding a firearm during the incident. The officers involved believed the gun was pointed at or coming in their direction, and that was the reason the officers had to make the extremely difficult decision to use deadly force,” the city’s communications team wrote in an email this week. “This settlement brings finality to seven years of litigation, and we hope it provides some measure of closure and healing to Ms. Silliman.”
The city added that in the months following the shooting, a new standard was created on how and when to use its SWAT team.
Changes at Tampa Police Department
News of Westcott’s 2014 killing spread around the country. The Washington Post called his death an “inexcusable drug war casualty” and Mother Jones wrote about the raid in an article highlighting the dangers of militarized policing.
Silliman filed a lawsuit for the wrongful death of her son in 2016. The drawn-out litigation, including an alleged conflict of interest with her original attorney, whom she later fired, delayed resolution until this month. Florida caps its police wrongful death payments at $200,000, even if a victim wins in court. Silliman chose to settle for $75,000 and taxable costs, rather than endure a lengthy and costly trial.
Since 2016, Silliman has said that her main goal was to expose police behavior the night her son died and make it change.
In depositions reviewed by the Times this month, officers involved in the raid admitted that they failed to announce “police” when moving from room to room — a standard procedure for police SWAT team raids. Officers claimed Westcott was shot when they pushed open his bedroom door and saw him with a gun.
Officers said that it was possible the SWAT team could have used other tactics, rather than break into Westcott’s house. For example, they could have shut off his water so he couldn’t potentially flush any drugs and demand he come outside, one officer said.
Silliman said that because of Westcott’s death, Tampa police implemented new rules for its use of the SWAT team.
“I pray that the changes they made because of what happened to Jason saves somebody’s life,” Silliman said.
In March of 2015, an email was sent to all Tampa police captains, lieutenants and sergeants. Attached was a points-based matrix that established a guideline for when and how the SWAT team should be used. If a criminal allegation did not reach a certain number of points according to the guideline, then officers should avoid using the SWAT team.
In the email, Special Teams Commander Michael Flynn wrote, “One question we will always ask: if a criminal informant was used, have they ever been red lined and are they considered reliable by your team?”
“Redlined” is a police term for no longer using an informant because they’re compromised. Coogle was redlined after the Westcott shooting.
When asked if the changes were made because of Westcott, a Tampa police spokesperson said that the SWAT team assessment form was created “following the incident in 2014″ but did not name Westcott.
Attorney John McGuire, who has represented Silliman for the past three years, said that even though it isn’t called the “Jason Westcott safety plan,” he is certain that Tampa police made the changes because of the killing.
Of all the times that McGuire interacted with Silliman while he worked on her case, he said she seems happier now that things are settled.
“She knows now that her son’s life wasn’t in vain,” he said.
While she still feels wronged by Tampa police, Silliman is feeling better now that she can move on from the lawsuit. She said it’s time for her to carry on with her life and that she’ll pray for those who were involved in the raid.
“That’s something that they have to live with,” she said.