New statement from Fernandez Bardine Law regarding St. Petersburg, FL Police negligence in St. Pete Gunman case

The statement was just released on the St. Pete Peace Protest page this afternoon. Full text and original documents are included.

RE: STATEMENT ON ST. PETERSBURG POLICE DEPARTMENT’S ONGOING INVESTIGATION OF ALT-RIGHT GUNMAN’S ASSAULT AT PEACEFUL PROTEST

Since the alt-right counter-protester drew his handgun and pointed it at peaceful demonstrators on Saturday night, we have sought not only to assist police in apprehending the suspect but to contribute meaningfully to the larger discussion of social justice and the systemic racism that has historically infected the way law enforcement has treated Black people in this country.

In that spirit, we have attempted to build a bridge between the St. Pete Police department and protesters, hoping that we could also change the public narrative surrounding Saturday night’s events and lower the emotional temperature. That is the only way to achieve transformative change.

But partnerships take two willing parties. Unfortunately, the conduct of the St. Pete Police Department with regard to St. Pete Peace Protest and the victims who have bravely come forward thus far has been disappointing and is yet another signal that we have a long way to go toward our goals.

It is not our intention to release the following information in an attempt to smear the police department or interfere with an ongoing investigation. On the contrary, it is our goal to work with the police department, and we share this information as a tool to promote accountability as well as to highlight with transparency what we believe to be the best path forward.

Since day one, the conduct of the St. Petersburg Police Department has been extremely disappointing. On Saturday, September 26, only one officer was present at the protest. Based on our review of the footage, the officer did not intervene in numerous acts of violence perpetrated by counter protesters. He declined to take any information from protesters who attempted to report the gunman’s assault and battery onsite. He is seen in footage talking with aggressive counter protesters, including the gunman, after the incident occurred, yet he declined to get their names or information, a choice that allowed the gunman to go unidentified, and a choice that failed to control a dangerous and escalating situation.

This is an egregious error. While we believe the individual officer is accountable for his actions, we also believe that doing his job would have been easier had he not been alone in a large crowd of protesters and counter-protesters. The department needs to be held accountable for its decision as well, a decision that put protesters as well as one of their own in danger.

The police chief has come forward to admit these mistakes; however, the conduct of the department after the mistakes were realized is troubling. The department must be held accountable for their irresponsible rhetoric and behavior after the occurrences of September 26. The department has not moved forward consistent with the truth. Instead, they have created their own false narrative. The police have falsely asserted that two peaceful demonstrators–both young Black men–displayed knives during Saturday’s protest. This is not true, as we have made clear from the start and reiterate here. To support this mistruth, the police have attempted to influence news coverage of the event by providing media outlets with photos of young, Black men holding unidentified objects with the filenames such as “knife.png.” We provided the Tampa Bay Times with multiple images of the same Black men showing conclusively that the objects they were holding were a belt, a cell phone, and a bandana. We provided the same to law enforcement. Their narrative persists.

The St. Pete Police Department’s behavior in this regard is not only disappointing and shameful, but it is dangerous and reckless. Let us be clear: their actions have jeopardized the safety of these innocent Black men. Because of this, the victims have been afraid to come forward.

They have come forward anyway.

On Tuesday, September 29, Police Chief Anthony Holloway requested at a press conference at City Hall that victims make statements to law enforcement. In response, two such victims, accompanied by counsel, provided written statements as well as three hours of interviews to officers at the St. Pete Police Department, thus filing the first formal criminal complaints of this nature since these protests for social justice began in St. Pete following George Floyd’s murder in May. One woman, who still cannot drive due to her injuries, was driven an hour to be present. She voluntarily endured three hours at the police department that evening, notwithstanding painful injuries.

Officer Istvan of the SPPD conducted the initial intake interviews on September 29. He was respectful when questioning the victims. He asked thoughtful questions and struck an empathetic tone, and we appreciate his professionalism. A victim who suffered a concussion, a contusion, and a probable broken tailbone, voluntarily allowed photographs to be taken of her injuries. Due to the sensitive nature of the injuries, a female forensic specialist was called in to take the photographs. This forensic specialist also behaved with warmth and professionalism, and we deeply appreciate that.

On Wednesday, September 30, Detective Brian Bilbrey contacted the attorneys. Detective Bilbrey is a homicide detective. He stated that he was placed on this case because the department knew it would be “a big deal.” When he first reached out, counsel was not available to take the call. Detective Bilbrey left a message, stating that he would just “call the victims directly” instead of waiting for a call back and he did so, immediately displaying disrespect for the relationship of counsel to their clients. Counsel called the Detective back shortly, and a conversation between them ensued during which the Detective stated that the department had done all they could to find the gunman. Counsel reminded the Detective of the failings of the department to take down the gunman’s information, stating that she hoped the department would use their resources to correct their mistakes and locate the gunman, of whom they have video and close up images.

Counsel agreed to schedule the victims for yet another interview at the St. Petersburg Police Department, three victims, one of whom had not previously come forward, appeared voluntarily at the St. Petersburg Police Department with counsel to speak to Detective Bilbrey.

The meeting did not go well.

In order to protect their clients, counsel was forced to terminate the interviews. Though we consider it bad form to characterize here private conversations between the detective and victims’ counsel, or to reveal most details of those interviews, we feel compelled to say this: Victims are not criminals and must not be treated as such. Victims need to be treated with respect, kindness, and compassion. They need to be treated as though they have been through a traumatic experience–because they have.

The detective, however, conveyed new information that would be irresponsible for counsel to withhold:

When asked by counsel if the two young Black men shown in the video were suspects, the detective responded that they are, instead, potential victims.

We agree.

We implore the St. Petersburg Police Department to issue a written statement unequivocally confirming what the detective released behind closed doors: that the two young Black men are not suspects as originally asserted. Instead, they are victims, as the clear evidence suggests.

Further, as the temperature continues to rise ahead of this evening’s events, we implore the community to come together for peace. We have provided numerous images to the St. Pete Police Department evidencing alt-right threats made against protesters specifically stating that the alt right will be present this evening and will continue to instigate violence. We urge the department to take these threats seriously and to move forward in a way that protects and serves the people of this community.

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