Just A Three Year Vacation

In 2009, Sarasota Police Officer Chris Childers got caught.  A video in the jail “sallyport” told the story of how his handling of then 21-year-old Juan Perez, drunk, was less than fitting.  The  Herald-Tribune described the video at the time:

The tape shows Officer Christopher Childers pull a squad car into the jail’s sallyport area with Juan G. Perez, 21, with his hands handcuffed behind him in the back seat about 8 p.m. on June 26. Childers remains in the front seat as Perez shimmies out the squad car’s open back window and falls face-first onto the pavement, the video shows. The officer walks around the car and stands by Perez.

Minutes later, as Perez is trying to stand up, Childers apparently kicks him in the chest, then kicks him again. Perez falls back to the ground and Childers stands with his foot on Perez for five minutes. While Childers stands with his foot on the inmate’s torso, two other law enforcement officers walk over to see what is going on and then go about their business.

Childers and another officer later pull Perez up and take him into the jail. He is brought back to the squad car, staggering but on his feet. Perez was driven to the hospital, where police said his blood-alcohol content tested at almost three times the legal limit.

This conduct got Childers fired from the police force.  The usual reaction to gratuitous abuse by cops didn’t happen here. No whitewash. No hiding behind “we’re investigating” until the ill-winds blow past. No vague explanations to justify the unjustifiable.  No bull.

Childers, a nine-year veteran officer and former U.S. Army Ranger, was fired after investigators concluded he violated five department policies.

In those 9 years, Childers had managed to accumulate five excessive force complaints. Since “none stuck,” they don’t constitute a basis to conclude he had a propensity to use excessive force, but it’s included here for the same reason cops inform the newspapers about the criminal arrest record of every citizen they shoot without cause, to leave an unpleasant taste.

What followed was a show of chaos at the Sarasota Police Department, with the Chief, Peter Abbott, getting canned after being  accused of trying to improperly influence Perez when he sent a detective by to offer him a quick $400 to shut down. Perez later received $40,000 in settlement. Then there was the Civil Service Board fiasco, where the board violated the sunshine law by discussing the case privately, resulting in a big money damage award of $90,000.

The case finally went before a new Board, the final arbiter of police termination.  They shrugged. No big deal, and concluded that Childers should be reinstated with back pay for the three years that elapsed.

Civil Service Board members, including former City Commissioner Ken Shelin, said they were particularly swayed by the testimony of an SPD sergeant who saw what happened and said he did not think it was egregious.

“This was really not a strong force that was used,” Shelin said, as the board deliberated. “The man was drunk as a skunk and he was going to topple over easily. And apparently, that’s all he did. It was an easy push with his foot, and the man fell over.

“I know it looks bad on the tape, and that’s one of the problems with the video of this, and the public’s perception of the video.”

Every picture tells a story, don’t it?  This picture tells a story of why municipalities don’t rid themselves of bad cops.  It costs too much, and they don’t fare well anyway. 

They had a video.  This wasn’t a matter of a citizen’s complaint, which any rookie lawyer could argue is just animus or sour grapes, since police officers are sworn to uphold the law and respect the rights of citizens, which conclusively proves they would never harm anyone needlessly. “Why would they?” is the standard argument, and it’s proven its vitality for decades.

They had a video, but it didn’t have sound. Could that spell the difference?

The video did not capture sound, so it is difficult to say whether the officer felt threatened by Perez, or whether Perez was attempting to escape, said Maria “Maki” Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay.

However, when the other officers walk over to Childers as he stands with his foot on the inmate, it is clear the officers are in no danger, Haberfeld said.

“There was no need to keep him on the ground,” she said. “It’s not justified.”

But Civil Service Board member, and former City Commissioner, Ken Shelin spelled it out. Perez was “drunk as a skunk.” Screw him. He “was going to toppled over easily.” No harm, no foul. But most importantly, “it looks bad on tape, and that’s one of the problems with the video of this, and the public’s perception of the video,” which means that it wasn’t bad.  No doubt you can follow the logic too.

Childers, having had three years to ponder how to explain his conduct caught on tape, offered his exonerating explanation.

Childers — who argues the word ‘kick’ does not accurately describe what he did to gain control of Perez — says he was not trying to hurt him or use any more force than necessary to keep him subdued.

He had left the window of the patrol car open, he said, so that Perez could get some fresh air as he coped with the effects of the pepper spray.

Childers said he used his foot on Perez because he was trying to keep from being spit on.

“I didn’t want to get in a close proximity to him where if he wants to spit, it would get in my face,” Childers said. “That’s why I used my feet, and my legs.”

Nothing to see here. Move along.   Police Officer Childers is back from his three year vacation.

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