'They ignited the situation': Ft. Lauderdale police cracked skull of peaceful protester

  • In US
  • 2020-06-02 22:53:19Z
  • By Miami Herald
\'They ignited the situation\': Ft. Lauderdale police cracked skull of peaceful protester  

LaToya Ratlieff was stumbling away from a cloud of tear gas in downtown Fort Lauderdale Sunday - choking, coughing and trying not to vomit - when a police officer shot a foam rubber bullet at her head.

The round, traveling more than twice the speed of a Major League fastball, smashed into her face just above the right eye, opening up a bloody gash. The impact brought Ratlieff, who was attending an anti-police brutality protest, to her knees. Her eye started to swell shut. Her eye socket was fractured, her medical records show. The projectile that likely struck her, known as a foam baton, has roughly the density of a racquet ball and is fired from a rifle-barreled launcher. Foam batons are considered a lethal munition when aimed at the head, according to the manufacturer's manual.

Shooting Ratlieff in the face as she left the scene would seem to violate the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's policy on proper use of so-called "less lethal munitions."

The weapons policy, posted on the department's website, states officers should aim for the head and neck "only if deadly force becomes necessary."

Moments before being shot around 7 p.m., Ratlieff was kneeling on the ground, encouraging other marchers to stay peaceful and join her. From their knees, the group begged police in riot gear to stop using tear gas on protesters, who had been angered after seeing an officer shove a kneeling woman minutes earlier and had tossed water bottles at police in response. The protest had been peaceful all afternoon. As Ratlieff and the other protesters kneeled, the situation seemed back under control. But police resumed launching tear gas canisters from behind a wall of shields. Several protesters backed away with their hands in the air.

When the gas began to choke Ratlieff, another woman led her to safety. Ratlieff was off to the side moving away from the gas and the remaining protesters when an officer took aim. Someone yelled at the officer to stop. It didn't work. The officer fired. The next moments were a blur. She wasn't even in pain at first.

"It wasn't until I saw all the blood on the ground that it hit me," said Ratlieff, a 34-year-old grant writer for nonprofits who lives in Delray Beach. "I've been shot."

Miami Herald reporters witnessed the incident. A black projectile hit Ratlieff in the forehead and ricocheted 50 feet down the street. Reporters were unable to locate the munition, but later returned to the scene and found cartridges labeled: "40 mm Foam Baton."

The police department's policy for using foam batons states: "For safety reasons the deploying officer utilizing a less-lethal weapon should not aim at the head, throat, face, or groin area of a suspect. ... The potential for causing death or serious physical injury by such projectiles is a reality."

It also states officers should give a verbal warning to disperse before using projectiles. No such warning was given, according to Ratlieff and more than a dozen other protesters in the area. Herald reporters standing nearby also heard no warning.

"We were all running and trying to get out of the way. So it was purposeful in the fact that the officer could have stopped," Ratlieff said. "Whichever officer that did this, you could have stopped. You had no reason to continue to do that."

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The department has also not released incident reports from the protest in response to a public records request.

The day had been peaceful until around 7 p.m. when a Fort Lauderdale police officer, Steven Pohorence, shoved a kneeling woman in the head outside a city parking garage. Protesters who witnessed the act began throwing water bottles. Police in riot gear - who were staging in the garage even though that is where many of the protesters had parked, seemingly guaranteeing an encounter of some kind - responded with tear gas and foam baton rounds.

Ratlieff arrived after the first confrontation and attempted to calm the protesters. She was struck minutes later outside the garage. Those nearby helped carry her away. People she didn't know rushed her to Broward General Medical Center in their car. No police, all trained in first response, offered assistance, she said.

After that, many people left. Squads of police continued to clash with groups of protesters still in the area. Some protesters threw rocks and launched fireworks at officers as the conflict worsened. The Broward Sheriff's Office was called in for backup.

Just before 8:30 p.m., Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis declared a 9 p.m. curfew and police announced over a loudspeaker that protesters would be arrested if they stayed out after that time. More than 50 officers in riot gear formed lines around two sides of the park where protesters had gathered peacefully earlier in the day. At least three armored vehicles were deployed. The piercing din of a sound cannon was used to drive people away. No arrests were made.

Pohorence was suspended that evening for shoving the woman, an act caught on video by a protester. The woman he struck has not been identified. The officer who shot Ratlieff has also not been identified. Protesters said police shot another man in the head with a projectile, leaving him unable to recall the day of the week.

Scott Ross, who took photos of the protest, said police shot people who were fleeing in the back of the legs.

"The tear gas is working. People are running away," Ross said. "Why are they shooting people in the back? It appeared punitive."

A peaceful protest

The march, organized by Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward and other local groups to protest the deaths of George Floyd and people of color at the hands of police, began at 3 p.m. at Huizenga Plaza, a downtown Fort Lauderdale park.

Attendees were told not to engage with the police under any circumstances and stay calm. Dozens of volunteers were selected before the protest to monitor officers and the crowd and maintain peace. Police kept their distance from the estimated 1,500 civilians, who marched from the park to Fort Lauderdale police headquarters on Broward Boulevard.

Volunteers made sure to stay between police standing guard along the route and a small number of protesters who tried to taunt them. At the police station, the peacekeepers picked up loose rocks and hid them in bushes after one young man talked about hurling them through windows. Several stood with their arms out to prevent anyone from approaching the station's front doors. They also kept a handful of rowdy marchers away from stores along the route.

"We'd been trained by the organizers to defuse that: Not the time, keep it moving, let's get out," said Jessica Garafola, a peacekeeper and legislative aide to State Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Broward Democrat. The organizers' message was the same: It was a peaceful protest. There was no place for taunts or destruction of property. Their mission was to keep everyone safe, Garafola said. "There's nothing constructive that can happen, either their body being put in danger or the cops being irritated and taking it out on other people."

The organized effort worked. No windows were broken along the route. No fights with police occurred.

At around 6:15 p.m., the marchers returned to the park. A pastor gave a final prayer. Organizers told the crowd it was time to go home. Many started heading back to their cars at the Riverwalk Center Garage two blocks away. Among them were a group of young people who had joined the march as it headed back from the police station, several protesters said. When the young people saw a fully equipped riot squad in the garage, they began to chant and shout at the police from the street.

Protesters questioned why the riot squad was deployed so close to a non-violent march - and why police didn't work more to deescalate the situation.

"Why was the riot squad in the garage in the first place?" said Narnike Grant, a march volunteer who is running for Broward school board. "With these young kids, they're hasty, they don't think, they see the riot gear and they think, 'Oh you're ready for me, I'm ready for you.' ... Especially with kids like that who've been cooped up because of the pandemic."

"The police ignited the situation," Grant added. "When you start presenting yourselves as 'this is war,' you're only going to get what you put out there. And you're supposed to be setting the example."

What happened next isn't clear. Fort Lauderdale police said an officer sent a distress call, saying her car was surrounded by protesters. That may have led Pohorence into the crowd, where he pushed the woman, police said. The riot squad began advancing from inside the garage toward the street. Then the violence started. Ratlieff was shot.

Thor Eells, a retired police commander and executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, said police may not have intended to shoot Ratlieff in the head.

"They very easily could have been aiming at a permissible target area. That would not be unusual," Eells said. "In public disturbances, people being struck or injured is not uncommon. While not the desirable outcome, it does happen."

However, he said, the weapons are highly accurate up to 30 yards. Ratlieff was standing about 10 yards from the first line of police when she was hit.

Latisha Curry, a 23-year-old Florida International University student, was just trying to get her car and go home. Instead she got gassed.

"It was like wasabi in your eyes," she said.

In an interview with the Herald Tuesday, Trantalis said of Ratlieff's shooting, "it would be wrongful if we violated any policy. I think it's probably worth looking into."

However, the mayor said that no one should have stuck around after the protest ended and the violence began.

"There would be no reason why I would stay there if I saw tear gas and rocks being thrown," he said.

Trantalis also blamed the violence on "agitators," who he said stashed bricks and concrete blocks in the garage's stairwells and showed up with gas masks.

"People came there intending to provoke violence," he said.

Protesters interviewed by the Herald said they didn't see anything like that.

"That's a total lie," Grant said. "People were carrying signs."

18-year-old Zoe Dobbins made it out of the garage before the violence started. The protest had been outstanding, she thought.

So Dobbins was shocked when she got back home and learned what happened.

"We were watching the news and I said to my mom, 'How could that have turned so quickly? How could that happen?' " she said. "That was so organized. That went so well."

'Sick and tired of being sick and tired'

Just 36 hours after the protest, Ratlieff sat in her parent's living room, both eyes so swollen she could barely see text messages coming into her phone. Her tiny white dog, Fluff, waited anxiously at her feet, a watchful post he had maintained since the moment she returned from the hospital.

Ratlieff is left with questions and no good answers. She listed them off to a Herald reporter: Why had the officer shot at her and other protesters who were running away? What was the officer thinking who fired the weapon? Was that officer so worried about potential violence that they had somehow mistaken protesters with their hands in the air as a potential threat because of the color of their skin?

"It hurts. I don't have a lot of words to describe it. I don't really understand why this happens," Ratlieff said. "We're here peacefully asking you not do do this, not to be violent, and you meet us with violence?"

Ratlieff's great aunt is Fannie Lou Hamer, a famous civil rights activist who had been beaten to the point of permanent kidney injury while in jail in Mississippi for protesting Jim Crow laws. A year after the incident, in 1964, Hamer sat in front of the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City and said, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." The message was broadcast on national television and became a rallying cry of the civil rights movement.

Compared to what her great aunt experienced, Ratlieff told reporters "this is nothing," gesturing to her eye. She was most concerned about how to explain what happened to her 10-year-old niece. She doesn't want the young girl to live in fear.

But now Ratlieff is battling her own fear. She spent her life believing that there are "more good cops than bad cops" but is nervous about her next interaction with an officer.

"At a routine traffic stop, I have to make sure this moment is way in the back of my mind," Ratlieff said. "I can't react in any way. I can't show any discomfort, because I'm not sure how that officer might react."

The manufacturer's manual on the use of foam batons comes with a warning: "The action of pointing and firing a weapon directly at an individual and the associated flash, sound and impact delivers substantial psychological effects in conjunction with the actual projectile impact."

Ratlieff plans to march at another protest next weekend.

"By then," she said, "the swelling should be down."


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