Advertisement

Tampa police sergeant suspended for not documenting use of force, submitting evidence

Sgt. Stephen Drabiniak failed to give the department a cellphone video showing him taking a man to the ground and putting his hands on the man’s neck during an arrest.
 
In a screenshot from a video released by the Tampa Police Department on Thursday, Sgt. Stephen Drabiniak is seen placing his hand on the neck of a man while trying to take him into custody during a call at MacDinton's Irish Pub in South Tampa on June 11, 2022. The department released the video along with a news release reporting that Drabiniak had been suspended for three days for violating department policies.
In a screenshot from a video released by the Tampa Police Department on Thursday, Sgt. Stephen Drabiniak is seen placing his hand on the neck of a man while trying to take him into custody during a call at MacDinton's Irish Pub in South Tampa on June 11, 2022. The department released the video along with a news release reporting that Drabiniak had been suspended for three days for violating department policies. [ Tampa Police Department ]
Published Oct. 5, 2023|Updated Oct. 6, 2023

A high-ranking officer at the Tampa Police Department received a three-day suspension for violating two department policies after using force during an arrest at a South Tampa bar last year.

Tampa police Sgt. Stephen Drabiniak received the suspension after taking the man to the ground and putting his hands on the man’s neck during a June 11, 2022, arrest at MacDinton’s Irish Pub on South Howard Avenue. An internal investigation found Drabiniak did not use excessive or improper force, but did fail to properly document the use of force and the response to the man’s resistance in his report.

Drabiniak also failed to submit as evidence a cellphone video of the incident that he obtained that night, as required by policy. The video was taken by another person who was arrested during the incident.

The Tampa Police Department said in a Thursday news release that the man was part of a group of unruly patrons and security called police officers to help remove them. Drabiniak was among the officers who arrived to provide backup.

While outside the bar, Drabiniak ordered patrons who were causing a disturbance to leave the area. One of the men tried to force his way back into the bar and struck Drabiniak in the process, police said. When Drabiniak tried to arrest the man, according to police, he actively resisted.

The cellphone video shows Drabiniak on top of one of the men, with his hand on the man’s neck, as he and another officer placed him in handcuffs.

Police arrested the man on charges of trespassing and resisting arrest without violence, both misdemeanors. Court records show that the trespassing charge against the man was dismissed and that a jury found him not guilty of resisting arrest. The Tampa Bay Times is not naming him in this story because the charges were misdemeanors and he was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

On March 1, the department’s Professional Standards Bureau received an anonymous complaint by mail containing a thumb drive with the 45-second cellphone video of the struggle between Drabiniak and the man. For about eight seconds, Drabiniak’s hand is seen on the man’s neck.

Drabiniak said during the internal investigation that he was trying to hold the man on the ground by pressing on his collarbone and that he also tried to use a pressure point technique to get him to comply, according to a case disposition letter to police Chief Lee Bercaw that summarized the findings.

In the news release, the department said Drabiniak was trying to get the man “under control using a pain compliance technique by applying pressure behind the ear and jawline.”

“However, this was not done correctly resulting in his hand on his neck,” the release states.

The news release states that Drabiniak did not choke the man or impede his breathing, and the man did not complain or ask for medical attention. The video shows him talking while on the ground, which he testified to in court, the release states.

“While the video provided by the anonymous complainant created justified concerns, all the evidence viewed together fails to prove by a preponderance of evidence that the amount of force, or the type of force or level of force, utilized by the officer was in violation of policy,” the disposition letter states.

However, Drabiniak did not document the use of force in his report, as required by department policy. He called that “an oversight,” according to the letter.

The investigation also found that though Drabiniak obtained the cellphone video shortly after the arrests, he did not submit it as evidence — another policy violation.

“He stated that he attempted to download it but gave up when it failed to download,” the news release said.

The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office was not made aware of the video until the man’s defense attorney presented an edited version of the video at the start of the man’s trial, according to the disposition letter.

In a statement included in the news release, Bercaw said it’s clear “officers were dealing with a chaotic and volatile situation” but that he believes in holding officers to the highest possible standards.

“Quality Assurance is a pillar of this department,” Bercaw said. “To ensure we are held to the highest standard I encourage feedback, positive or negative, because community input ultimately makes us better as a police department.”

Tampa police Sgt. Stephen Drabiniak is pictured in a screenshot of his LinkedIn page taken on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.
Tampa police Sgt. Stephen Drabiniak is pictured in a screenshot of his LinkedIn page taken on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. [ LinkedIn ]

In August, a Times reporter received a tip about a use of force incident involving Drabiniak and reached him on his cellphone.

“I didn’t do anything nefarious,” Drabiniak said.

When asked why he posted on LinkedIn that he was looking for a new job, Drabiniak said that he had been at the department for nearly 25 years.

“It’s time to start, you know, looking for different options at this time in my life,” Drabiniak said.