On May 30, citizens from Newtown, a majority-Black, working-class community within Sarasota, attended a meeting of the Sarasota Police Complaint Committee to participate in a community speak-out. The committee allows citizens to voice their complaints regarding police conduct. Joining them were community organizers representing the Black Lives Matter chapter of Manasota, the Suncoast branch of the ANSWER Coalition, and the Rodney Mitchell Foundation, as well as other local activists from the Sarasota-Bradenton area.
Ruth Beltran, an organizer with ANSWER Suncoast and Black Lives Matter Tampa, laid out the purpose for the community speak-out: “I am here to urge you to look into these matters. We have a dangerous police officer in the streets; that’s what Brandon Vermillion is. We have two recent incidents [of police brutality], one in March and one in April.”
Sarasota Police Officer Brandon Vermillion, to whom Beltran referred, is notorious in the Newtown community for his frequent harassment of Black citizens. As of now, one of the immediate demands of local activists is for Vermillion to be removed from the police force.
The first of these two recent incidents occurred in late March, when Chad Washington, a local man, while suffering a medical emergency in his own home, was brutally beaten and nearly killed by Sarasota PD officers. Darnesha McMillan, Washington’s fiancé, called for an ambulance when she realized there was an emergency. But instead of emergency medical services, SPD officers arrived at her home.
McMillan, a working mother of three children, took time out of her day to speak before the committee and against the narrative put forward by the Sarasota Police Department and some local press. As she attested before the committee on Wednesday, “The officers did not [identify themselves]. They just came in and beat [Chad] with no questions asked. They came in unannounced. We had no knowledge that the officers were even coming. It was not explained to me that they would be dispatched as well. I was told that EMS would be arriving. EMS never arrived. It’s been said that EMS showed up, but they didn’t. They came after the incident already had ended.”
According to McMillan, the responding officers attacked Washington while he was still incapacitated due to his medical condition, pinned him on the ground against a police vehicle, and proceeded to use a Taser on him, 13 times according to an official report, causing his heart to stop. During the assault one of the officers among the four who responded pulled out a pair of handcuffs and used them to beat Washington as he was on the ground being electrocuted. One of McMillan’s neighbors recorded a few minutes of video of the tasing on her phone, and uploaded it to Facebook; it quickly went viral and was reported by local news.
The video not only shows that Washington was incapacitated and in severe pain, but also that his fiancé and her three children looked on helplessly as he was electrocuted and beaten. The children can be heard screaming at the officers to stop. As one repeatedly deploys a Taser on Washington, another officer watches and then beats him using the pair of handcuffs, while two others forcefully keep the family away from their loved one.
Despite the video evidence and eye-witness testimony, an internal investigation conducted by the Sarasota Police Department found that the officers acted appropriately. Sarasota Chief of Police Bernadette DiPino went so far as to say that the officers “showed restraint” by not killing Washington, implying that, even if he had died, the officers would not have been held responsible. Not only this, but she noted that the police department could have charged McMillan and her children for interfering with the officers’ actions. To add racist insult to racist injury, DiPino has also pushed the narrative that Washington, a Black man, was “behaving like an animal” and insinuated that he may have taken drugs which caused him to “not feel pain” and “behave aggressively” — common rhetorical tactics used to dehumanize Black victims of police brutality.
Washington received treatment at a local hospital following his brutalization by Sarasota police. He now faces multiple felony charges for allegedly battering the officers who attacked him, and is currently being held at the Sarasota County Jail. Meanwhile, the Sarasota Housing Authority has threatened to evict McMillan and her three children from their subsidized housing in retaliation for McMillan’s participation in community protests and speak-outs since her fiancé’s brutalization.
McMillan has not yielded an inch. Wednesday’s committee hearing was the fifth such action she has attended. She was unequivocal: “What the officers did to Chad was enough to kill a person. And that was Officer Vermillion’s intent — to kill Chad.”
Carolina Zitran, a resident of Sarasota, denounced the brutality against Washington, saying of the police, “Anyone who shoots an unarmed person is a coward, especially if they are running away. Any group of people who beat or abuse an unarmed person are cowards.”
The second incident occurred approximately three weeks later, when Officer Brandon Vermillion, the same primary assailant of Chad Washington, again used lethal force, this time against three unarmed Black teenagers, two of whom are minors, who were sitting in an SUV in a residential area. Vermillion fired his gun at their vehicle multiple times, inflicting serious gunshot wounds on the two of the youth. Vermillion claims to have approached the vehicle because it “looked suspicious” being parked in public at nighttime, and invoking the standard excuse, claims to have fired upon it because he “feared for his life” as the teenagers drove away.
One attendee to the committee hearing, Jack O’Keefe, focused on the legal aspects of the incident, which he characterized as a consensual encounter between citizens and a police officer. “The officer decided to discharge his weapon, and he hit two occupants in that vehicle. He didn’t have the legal authority to do that,” O’Keefe argued.
O’Keefe noted, “The officer argues, potentially, that he gets to use the ‘stand your ground’ defense. But they can only use [that defense] in effectuating an arrest. He didn’t have probable cause for an arrest. He didn’t have probable cause to approach that vehicle and engage in an investigatory stop.”
Immediately following the shooting, the teenagers managed to drive themselves to a nearby hospital. All survived. Security footage brought before an earlier Police Advisory Panel meeting by a family member, who presented it via her cellphone, revealed that Vermillion had no probable cause to stop the vehicle and was not in the vehicle’s path as it drove away, removing any possible justification to indiscriminately fire bullets at its occupants. The Sarasota Police Department, however, apparently chose not to include this crucial evidence in any of Chief DiPino’s press conferences and other public statements justifying the shooting.
Jeremy Trebbles, 18, who was driving the SUV and was one of two youth shot by Vermillion, is currently being held at the Sarasota County Jail, facing charges for allegedly endangering the officer who shot him. Because of this, he was unable to attend his high school graduation, and his acceptance into the university of his choice, previously secured, is now in jeopardy. All this while he continues to recover from a traumatic gunshot wound to his neck, which could easily have killed him.
Robert Whitfield, a resident of Newtown who identified himself as an honorably discharged U.S. Airforce veteran and Jeremy Trebbles’ grand-uncle, spoke before the committee to represent his grand-nephew. “I am totally disgusted at this intrusion,” he said of the police violence in Newtown. “Our nephew did not get the opportunity to walk with his class. Why? Because he’s incarcerated… with bullet holes in him. That makes no sense to me. None whatsoever.”
The family of Jeremy Trebbles had prepared a list of questions for the Sarasota Police Department concerning the incident, which Chief DiPino has neglected to address, as well as a statement. Whitfield proceeded to read both before the committee in turn.
“Speaking on behalf of the family, as the family, we need to know: Did the officer violate procedure at any point during this encounter? Is this standard procedure — firing your weapon into a car that is exiting the scene? The evidence indicates to us that the shots were fired into the side of the vehicle, not from the front, which the officer stated in his report. If there is no danger or threat, if the vehicle is leaving the scene, why is the officer still firing his weapon? That’s beyond my comprehension. Who conducted the investigation into the officer’s shootings, and what were the findings? How long have these officers been involved with the police force? Have any of these officers ever been involved with shootings in the past? Have any of these officers ever been disciplined in the past for conduct unbecoming of an officer?
“We the family feel that these officers acted in a manner which is not consistent with the [police training]; to fire into a vehicle that was driving away from the scene five to seven times doesn’t seem consistent to us. We feel these officers lied in their statements to cover up their actions, which were clearly wrong. We think that an independent investigation needs to be done, to show where the officers were at the time each bullet was fired into the car. We feel that an independent investigation will clearly show that the officer’s statement was, in fact, not a true statement of the facts of what happened that evening.
“I implore you,” Whitfield continued, speaking more personally, “as a resident, as a veteran: My nephew could have died. I’d appreciate any and all action, as fast as possible, because this matters. And I understand I’m not the only one,” he said, gesturing around the room. “I’m hearing people.”
Upon being told his time was up, Whitfield simply concluded, “I’m so disappointed. I was born in this city. I hope that change comes soon… It’s not us always killing each other.”
Systemic racist violence
The community has been galvanized in recent weeks through multiple protests and speak-out events before various public committees. Nearly a dozen people participated in the most recent speak-out, the highest number yet. The first of this wave of protests and speak-out events occurred in March, with a demonstration in the immediate aftermath of the brutalization of Chad Washington. Momentum has continued to grow, especially as the Sarasota Police Department refuses to hear the community’s demands and intensifies its violence against Newtown.
These two incidents of violence by police, both against unarmed Black men in Newtown, in which four people, total, were nearly killed, are glaring examples of a longstanding and worsening pattern of systematic, racist police violence against Newtown residents.
Natasha Clemons, a resident of Newtown, spoke before the committee on her personal experience with the police. “My son was killed for being Black,” she said, speaking of Rodney Mitchell, for whom the Rodney Mitchell Foundation, which she leads, is named.
Mitchell was murdered by two Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputies in June 2012 during a racially-motivated traffic stop. His car lurched forward, which the officers characterized as violence, and which, predictably, they said caused them to “fear for their lives” as a justification for their use of lethal force. However, details revealed later showed that the police had highly exaggerated the supposed threat posed by the vehicle, which removed any justification for lethal force.
“Put yourselves in our shoes,” Clemons said. “The same story — the exact same story — that they’re using for their statement against Jeremy is the story they initially used against Rodney.”
Mitchell, 23 at the time of his death, had recently moved back to Bradenton, having graduated from Eastern New Mexico University on a full scholarship with a degree in physical education, to raise his 4-year-old son and find work teaching disabled children. The district attorney ruled the shooting justified and refused to indict either of the officers or reopen an investigation.
The Newtown and broader Sarasota community is under no illusions of colorblindness. It was clearly expressed throughout the people’s testimonies that both the police violence suffered by Newtown residents and the coverage thereof by various local media outlets have a racialized, anti-Black character.
Deidra Larkins, an activist with Black Lives Matter Alliance Manasota, stated, “I’m not asking you all to take a stand. I’m demanding, because Newtown will not stand for this. We pay taxes just like everyone else here in Sarasota County, and we will not stand for funding officers on paid administrative leave after shooting our teenagers.”
“These committees don’t have real power to fire and discipline police officers,” noted Juliana Musheyev, also an organizer with ANSWER Suncoast. “We need real police accountability.”
After the final speaker had finished, the chair of the committee asked if anyone else had a request to speak. A question was raised by an attendee: What will the committee actually do? The chairwoman answered, ultimately, that the committee only has the authority to review the internal police investigations and submit an opinion on the department’s findings. It offers recommendations to the police chief, but has no power of its own with which it could check the police.
When asked whether the committee agrees with the decision made by the police department, the chairwoman exclaimed, “Well of course we don’t! But we make our recommendations to the police…” The attendees continued to express their frustration until the committee shut down further questions. This sentiment of frustration with the notion of the police department investigating itself was expressed by several other speakers.
The community’s demands, in the immediate term, are straightforward: Drop the false charges against Chad Washington and Jeremy Trebbles. Allow an independent investigation of the incidents. Hold the police accountable by firing Officer Brandon Vermillion and prosecuting him for the torture of Chad Washington and for four counts in two separate instances of attempted murder.
But the community’s demands reach far beyond immediate fixes to immediate problems. As Beltran stated, speaking on the need for a committee with true independence from and power over the police, “We are demanding police accountability — real police accountability.”
How police violence against the Black community will be reigned in and how accountability will be enforced are all problems yet to be resolved. For now, one thing is certain, both to local activists and the citizens of Newtown: The police cannot be trusted to oversee themselves. Without independent community oversight of and control over the Sarasota Police Department and Sarasota County Sheriff, the continued police presence in Newtown amounts to an illegal occupation.