Within the next two weeks, the city of Sarasota will decide whether to discipline members of the police department and the city’s risk-management department for its handling of an incident in which a police officer kicked a handcuffed suspect.
Officer Christopher Childers was caught on surveillance video June 26, kicking Juan Gomez-Perez to the ground, after Gomez-Perez climbed out of Childers’ car window at the county-jail booking facility.
Although he was immediately informed of the incident, Lt. Kenneth Rainey, the police department’s shift commander that day, did not report it to his supervisor for 12 days.
Once Police Chief Peter Abbott was informed, Abbott asked the city’s risk manager, Larry Hobbs, to make a settlement offer to Gomez-Perez in exchange for waiving his right to sue the city.
Hobbs visited Gomez-Perez Saturday, July 11 and gave him $400.
Abbott and Hobbs failed to keep City Manager Bob Bartolotta informed of the case and their actions. Bartolotta asked members of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the police department and city government employees involved in the incident and its aftermath.
The city received the 3,000-page report last week. It released 34 pages to the public. The following are excerpts from that report:
Despite the “red flags,” Rainey decided not to notify his chain-of-command, including Capt. Lucius Bonner. He discussed the matter with his wife, who is also a police-department employee, and sergeants assigned to his shift, at least one of whom suggested to Rainey that he should apprise Bonner of the apparent seriousness of the matter. Still, Rainey made the decision to wait until he obtained the video and all relevant information before notifying his commander.
Rainey: “There was no way I was not going to initiate a complaint on (Childers). I was going to ... It’s just that I didn’t tell my captain, because I was waiting for that tape.”
The video arrives
On July 8, 2009, after what he said were numerous requests to the Sarasota County Jail officials, Rainey finally received a copy of the video recording from the sheriff’s office. The following morning, Rainey approached Bonner and informed him of the incident.
Bonner said he was irritated and asked Rainey why he was only then being informed about the incident. Rainey stated that he wanted to have the “DVD in hand.” Bonner said he immediately went to Abbott’s office and informed him of what Rainey told him. Bonner said the chief expressed the opinion that the video could be bad if it were released, because perception was everything ...
Once the determination to proceed with the criminal investigation had been made, a meeting was held with (Abbott), Bonner and Internal Affairs Lt. Norm Stockton. Abbott (said) the investigation was confidential and should not be discussed outside the group, due to the sensitive nature.
At some point in the meeting ... it was Stockton who suggested to Abbott that the city’s risk management should be contacted and involved in the matter ...
Having viewed the video recording and knowing that the media was in the process of releasing it to the public meant that any investigation would be hampered, which concerned Abbott. The chief said that he was frustrated and made statements in his perturbed state.
Abbott: “I was frustrated. I was venting. So I said, ‘You know, (risk-management employee) Larry Hobbs better bring some big coin when he meets (Perez). Larry Hobbs better bring some serious cash’” ...
Sometime following the meeting of the commanders and the notification to Hobbs, Abbott notified City Manager Robert Bartolotta of what was taking place ... The chief also indicated that he contacted risk management to make them aware of the incident, which Bartolotta interpreted as being a notification only ...
Abbott: “When you get into something like this, you say, well, (Perez) is probably going to be upset. He’s probably going to be mad. He didn’t remember anything. He wasn’t injured, and he didn’t have any animosity toward the department or city. ... I said ... maybe I’ll call (Hobbs) tomorrow (Saturday, July 11) and let him know. I said, ‘Larry ... we did a criminal interview last night, and at the end of the interview, it turns out (Gomez-Perez) was not injured, which is good. He is not in any way upset with the city … So, I think maybe you should reach out to this guy ... So (Larry) says, ‘OK.’”
Hobbs recalled his contact with Abbott in a different sequence. (Hobbs) told investigators that the chief said (Gomez-Perez) was apologetic for his behavior and the chief seemed compelled to settle the matter before the video became public and resulted in a large lawsuit against the city ...
Hobbs said that on July 11, 2009, Abbott contacted him at home and told him he believed that the matter with Gomez-Perez could be settled that day if Hobbs was willing to meet with him. (Hobbs) said he was led to believe the city manager approved the meeting, a fact the chief denied, indicating that he stated the city manager knew of the incident.
The chief conceded that in looking back on his actions that day, he should have contacted Bartolotta and allowed him to decide whether or not to proceed with immediate settlement. Abbott said his intent on proceeding with civil settlement outside of normal procedures was to be proactive.
The conflict in the police being involved in the settlement became more apparent to the chief in later meetings with city officials, after reports on the settlement became public. Abbott accepted blame for that decision.
During the interview with Gomez-Perez, it was apparent that it was likely he did not understand the events that transpired at the meeting with Hobbs. Gomez-Perez, who indicated he had only three years of formal education, said he could not entirely read the release forms he signed, despite the fact the form was written in Spanish. Gomez-Perez related to an interpreter that he was scared, and when (redacted) told him to sign the forms for the money they discussed previously, he did so. Gomez-Perez indicated that he believed Hobbs was a magistrate and that by signing the documents, he no longer needed to go to court.
Hobbs: “I looked at (Gomez-Perez) to see if he had or appeared to have an understanding of what was going on, and he did. Very attentive.”
The chief said he never discussed an amount for a potential settlement with anyone, instead deferring to Hobbs to decide what an adequate amount of compensation would be for what took place. The chief said he was surprised when later that day Hobbs informed him of the amount of the settlement ($400) ...
Hobbs acknowledged that he had calculated the proposed amount for the settlement without outside counsel or assistance. The offer was based apparently on a conversation he’d had with (redacted) on the elevator about time Gomez-Perez had missed from work, presumably while he was jailed.
The following Monday, July 13, 2009, Abbott and Sgt. Kenneth Castro met with outgoing Deputy City Manager Peter Schneider and his incoming replacement, Marlon Brown. It was during that meting … Abbott realized the potential ramifications of his decision. The chief said for a week following that meeting, he was consumed with the error in judgment he made ...
(During a meeting with Bartolotta and City Attorney Robert Fournier July 15), Abbott and all the city officials present were clearly concerned about what had happened, especially Bartolotta. The city attorney was also irked that he was not informed of the incident earlier, but the chief saw his greater failure in not keeping the city manager better informed ...
Abbott said he acted within the scope of his office, and his actions, despite any mistakes actual or perceived, were made in what he believed to be the interests of the citizens of the city of Sarasota.
The situation clearly rose to a level that mandated supervisory notification, but Rainey failed to initiate command notifications.
The interviews and investigation conducted … found no evidence that connected the delay in reporting the incident to an attempt to cover up the incident.
Upon learning of the incident and having reviewed the video recording of the incident, Abbott acted decisively and with minimal hesitation ... By all accounts, Abbott was clearly in command of the situation, upset with the actions of his officers, and he was prepared to take whatever action necessary to address the treatment of Gomez-Perez.
The chief also failed to keep Bartolotta informed of the events surrounding his interaction with Hobbs, communications, which merited the input of the city manager, due to the gravity of the Gomez-Perez case. The potential implications for the city government should have been clear.
Hobbs could have altered the course of events … by questioning what he clearly knew were proceedings outside of the norm. He also failed to notify his supervisor … when requests from the police department rose to a questionable level. Hobbs formulated a settlement offer without having viewed video of the event, reviewed medical records for Gomez-Perez or verified the actual losses incurred by Gomez-Perez.
In conclusion, nothing revealed in the investigations of the incidents … led investigators to believe that any member of the Sarasota Police Department or employee of the city of Sarasota, including Police Chief Peter Abbott, engaged in illegal, unethical or immoral conduct.
The city has an estimated schedule on how it will deal with the report, any possible disciplinary actions and when all of that information will be released to the public.
This week: Police and city employees are given chance to provide input into the report’s findings.
Nov. 13 -17: City reviews that input.
Nov. 17: Police and city employees are notified of disciplinary meeting, if warranted.
Nov. 20: Police and city employees are given written disciplinary action, if warranted.
After all of these steps are taken, the report and any potential disciplinary actions will be released to the public. All employees have the right to appeal any disciplinary action.