On Tuesday, July 21 the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office announced a new police task force to “thoroughly and objectively investigate the use of deadly force by participating agencies to determine whether the officers’ actions were lawful under Florida law.”
Let’s break that down.
Three detectives, experienced in homicide or major crimes, from Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, St. Petersburg Police Department, Clearwater Police Department and one detective from the Pinellas Park Police Department, will be assigned to investigate the lawfulness of an officer’s actions in a use-of-force incident.
Clearwater Police will supervise use-of-force incidents north of Ulmerton and Walsingham Roads, and St. Petersburg Police will oversee those to the south. The sheriff’s office will be responsible for all other investigations.
“When a use-of-force incident occurs where deadly force is used by an officer or [the] force used results in death or serious bodily injury meets the criteria of the agency, that agency shall immediately notify the Supervising Agency,” read the announcement.
The task force will conduct its criminal investigation independently, yet parallel to the investigation conducted by the state attorney’s office.
“For the last forty years, Pinellas County law enforcement agencies had conducted their own investigations when their officers used deadly force,” said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Gualtieri acknowledged community expectations are changing and deadly force investigations “have to be perceived by the community as being done right and that means perceived as being done objectively and impartially to reach a just result.”
The announcement raised several questions, primarily: Why are the police policing themselves?
“The problem is that people don’t trust the police departments. It makes no difference if another department is investigating – they’re still all cops. They need to put civilians on the review boards to give them some credibility,” Gulfport resident Regina Bklyn posted to Facebook on July 21 in response to the sheriff’s office joint press conference.
To help answer this question, the Gabber asked Gulfport Police Chief Rob Vincent his opinion on the new task force.
“I gave my support to the agreement, which I believe is a good idea. In the event of a deadly force incident involving a GPD employee, we would previously rely on [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] to conduct the criminal investigation. Now we have the option of calling on the task force if we choose,” replied Vincent via email.
“The purpose of the task force is to conduct a criminal investigation,” wrote Vincent in a comment responding to Regina Bklyn. “Are there civilians locally with experience in conducting homicide investigations and with up-to-date knowledge on the latest regulations and rules on evidence collection, interview procedures, criminal laws, etc? Once an investigation is completed, the entire thing becomes public record; at that point, anyone will be able to review and scrutinize it.”
Eliseo Santana and James McLynas, the two candidates running against Gualtieri, were also critical of the task force.
“Changing the culture of policing starts at the top – and I don’t believe for one second that Bob Gualtieri actually wants to change the unconstitutional, violent, and militaristic methods he’s deployed in our neighborhoods,” wrote Santana. “Not only is this effort very poorly defined, it keeps the same broken system in place where there is no independent oversight and no community input.”
McLynas claimed that Gualtieri’s press conference was a response to his own recent announcement for a Community Police Accountability Board in a July 16 Facebook post.
In an emailed response to the Gabber, McLynas wrote:
“My program uses deputized civilians that will not just ‘review’ the biased, half-assed completed investigation the police do, it will empower these civilian investigators to do a parallel investigation while monitoring the agency involved during the entire investigation. They will be given access to everything the police are given in real time. They will be able to interview witnesses, ask questions of the officers involved and have complete access to the same information and evidence the agencies have. At the end of the day, their presence will prevent these agencies from getting away with covering up for bad cops and their report better match the police version of events or there will be some explaining to do.”