The past week has been a very trying one for our community.
We all watched in horror the event that unfolded in Minneapolis as a police officer abused his power and a man died tragically. Many joined together locally last weekend to raise their voice in peaceful protest. Later, an unruly confrontation developed between activists and police with several businesses vandalized.
Two incidents occurred during that confrontation Sunday night that I must address directly as mayor of Fort Lauderdale.
The first involves Officer Steven Pohorence. The video of his actions is very disturbing and clearly shows him shoving a kneeling protester with her hands in the air. He escalated the incredibly tense situation that was developing after the peaceful protest ended.
I find his actions to be extremely offensive. It is not the type of behavior we expect from our officers. We have worked hard as a city to build a professional Police Department in which officers are trained regularly on what constitutes appropriate use of force and how they should conduct themselves when interacting with the public.
We cannot tolerate such conduct.
Immediately after the incident, Officer Pohorence was relieved of duty. State Attorney Mike Satz has opened a criminal investigation and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is assisting. This will be a completely independent investigation. We look forward to a thorough and complete review.
I recognize the desire of many to see the city take further, immediate action. We cannot. A state law known as the Officers Bill of Rights as well as the city’s existing contract with the Fraternal Order of Police prohibit us from firing an officer before an investigation is completed.
While Officer Pohorence’s conduct deserves our condemnation, that of Officer Krystal Smith deserves commendation. Officer Smith immediately intervened to separate Officer Pohorence from the protesters and challenged his actions.
It is officers like Krystal Smith who help prevent tragedies like what happened in Minneapolis. Officers should stand up and speak up when they see colleagues engage in questionable behavior.
The second incident that I must address is what occurred with LaToya Ratlieff, a Delray Beach resident attending the protest. Although she is seen in videos conducting herself peacefully, Ms. Ratlieff was injured. News reports are that she was struck in the head with a foam baton – what most would call a rubber bullet – that had been fired by a police officer.
This is reprehensible. Fort Lauderdale is a peaceful community. And when people wish to assemble in peace, they should not fear our police or anyone else. I am no stranger to activist movements, and demonstrations are a significant part of the American experience of freedom of expression and assembly. This is and will always be the policy of our city.
I asked the city administration to investigate and am glad that Police Chief Rick Maglione is doing so. The Police Department’s use-of-force policy states that officers should not target the head when using this type of non-lethal force. The city needs to get to the bottom of what occurred and take whatever disciplinary action is necessary.
I reached out to Ms. Ratlieff today and personally apologized. I also offered the city’s assistance in ensuring she receives the necessary medical help.
The city and its police force faced a difficult challenge Sunday, yet I’m truly sorry about what transpired regarding these two individuals.
It appears that a demonstration planned for Lauderhill suddenly decided to change locations to Fort Lauderdale, and we quickly prepared for it. They had every right to demonstrate.
Yet, it is regrettable that a group arrived towards the end of the peaceful event, intending to hijack the message and steal the peace from our community.
This group was prepared for a fight. They were armed with bricks, spray paint, fireworks, gas masks and even milk – something that wards off the effects of tear gas. Our Police Department only began to use force when two officers were in danger – one was trapped in her patrol car as people jumped on it and broke its windows.
I would like to thank the rest of the officers from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department and surrounding law enforcement agencies who conducted themselves professionally and ably that evening.
In the coming days, as mayor, I am committed bringing people together to discuss what we do next as a community. We must come together racially and end bigotry, and we must to ensure police training and procedures match our expectations as a diverse, modern city.
I continue to urge calm and patience. Fort Lauderdale is our city, and violence gets us nowhere as we pursue our common cause of equality and justice.