Since late March, racist police terror has been making headlines again in Sarasota, with one officer, Brandon Vermillion, committing two separate acts of violence in the span of three weeks. Families, community members and activist organizations have been demanding justice, while the Trump-admiring Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino has taken a hardline stance in support of the officer.
On March 22, in Newtown, Chad Washington was visiting his fiancé, Darnesha McMillan, when he began having seizures and vomiting. McMillan called emergency medical services for help, but no ambulance ever showed up. Thirty minutes later, however, Sarasota Police Department (SPD) intruded into the apartment without warning. According to McMillan, two officers charged Washington to the floor and began punching, choking and tasing him.
Minutes later, a neighbor captured cell phone video of Officer Brandon Vermillion slamming a taser repeatedly into Washington’s back as Washington cried out in pain. Trapped between the police car and the officers, Washington crawled on the ground but could barely move as officers punched him with their fists and with handcuffs, breaking his nose, while Officer Vermillion tased him thirteen times. Meanwhile, McMillan’s children screamed in fear and anger at the police.
Local media, echoing statements made by the police, treated the brutal act of state violence against a Black man with headlines such as, “Bradenton man jailed after what he did to officers while he was high” and “Police: Man high on spice attacks Sarasota police officer.”
Washington was charged with battery on an officer and remains incarcerated at the time of this writing. The officers were subject to no disciplinary action. Chief DiPino also offered no criticism of police conduct or policy, and even went so far as to publicly blame the survivor. “We want this to serve as a reminder to our community that no one should take illegal drugs,” she crassly remarked.
The video received hundreds of shares and hundreds of thousands of views on Facebook. As outrage spread, McMillan, The Rodney Mitchell Foundation, ANSWER Suncoast and Black Lives Matter Manasota organized an emergency protest on March 25. They chanted and held signs saying “Community control of the police!” and “Arrest and fire brutal Sarasota cops!”
When SPD refused to fire the officers, McMillan and her supporters led another march on March 31 from Five Points Park down Main Street to the Sarasota Police Department, forcing SPD to cancel its public screening of “The Emoji Movie.” With loud chants and signs, demonstrators spread their message of “No justice, no peace” to hundreds of tourists eating dinner along Main Street. After rallying at the police department, they marched back to Five Points Park where they projected the video of SPD’s brutality onto the wall of Selby Public Library.
On April 13, McMillan and members of ANSWER Suncoast and Party for Socialism and Liberation attended the Police Advisory Panel meeting at Sarasota’s City Hall. While news crews recorded, activists told the advisory panel and Chief DiPino directly that the officers involved must be fired and that the charges against Washington must be dropped. DiPino announced that her internal investigation had determined that officers acted appropriately, even “with restraint” for not shooting Washington with their pistols. The advisory board is currently reviewing the internal investigation.
Vermillion uses lethal force again
Earlier that morning on April 13, only three weeks after his brutalization of Washington, the same Officer Vermillion opened fire into an SUV with three Black teenagers inside. The shooting took place three blocks from where he attacked Washington.
Jeremy Trebbles, Jr. and two younger teens were parked at Janie’s Garden Rental Community in Newtown when Vermillion and another officer suddenly approached the vehicle at 1:00 am. Startled, Trebbles drove away. Officer Vermillion claims to have fired several rounds at the teens because Trebbles attempted to use the vehicle as a deadly weapon—the same claim used by Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputies to justify their murder of Rodney Mitchell in 2012.
Trebbles and another teen were hit by Vermillion’s bullets and drove themselves to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where at least one of the survivors was treated for wounds that were very serious, according to community members.
News headlines again reported the event backwards, making it appear as though the police officers were the victims rather than the assailants: “Two Sarasota officers hurt in overnight shooting”, “Venice football player hit Sarasota police officer who feared for his life. So he opened fire, cops say”, “Two Sarasota police officers injured in officer-involved shooting at apartment complex.”
In a press conference the following morning, Chief DiPino claimed that officers had approached the vehicle because it was suspicious for the teens to be inside a parked car at night. Her main concern was yet again the wellbeing of police rather than their victims. “Being involved in a situation like this is both physically and emotionally trying on the officers,” DiPino said, announcing that Trebbles would be charged with “aggravated assault with a deadly weapon on a law enforcement officer.”
Since the press conference, almost no information has been forthcoming from law enforcement, just like in the case of Manatee deputies’ January killing of an unarmed Black man and father of four in Bradenton, Corey Mobley. While SPD investigates itself, the public is left to wonder: What is the current condition of the teens? Where are the bullet holes on the vehicle? What are witnesses saying about the shooting? Did the dozens of police surveillance towers in Newtown record any of the events? Is Officer Vermillion still on paid leave or is he back on duty?
The only piece of evidence offered so far to the public came at the Sarasota City Commission meeting on April 16, when a cousin and friend of the survivors came forward during a speak out for justice for Chad Washington. The young woman provided photos to the City Commissioners that showed Officer Vermillion and Officer Torres, without any apparent injuries, right after Trebbles drove away from Janie’s Garden. To her knowledge, the teens were unarmed and most likely afraid.
The fight for justice continues
That night at City Hall, McMillan, her children and supporters sat at the table across from city commissioners and again demanded justice and reforms.
“We demand that you, the commission for this city, do the right thing. Hold the Sarasota Police Department accountable,” said Ruth Beltran, a member of Party for Socialism and Liberation and ANSWER Suncoast. “We demand independent community oversight and control of the police, to include the use of body cameras and dash cameras for each gang-member of the Sarasota Police Department.”
“Chief DiPino arrived in Sarasota with…a four-generation-deep family legacy in both the city and county of Baltimore police departments,” said Shakira Refos, speaking on behalf of Black Lives Matter Manasota. “What we now know about policing practices in Baltimore should give us pause in order to ask ourselves if Baltimore police company culture should be informing and training the officers [in Sarasota].”
McMillan recounted how the attack on her fiancé was a “nightmare,” with police charging into the home unexpected, unannounced and instantly unleashing violence, traumatizing her children. She also told commissioners that Officer Vermillion had been in previous encounters with Washington, including earlier that day at a bus stop. “This officer has some type of vendetta with Chad,” said McMillan.
“Chad needs justice and the charges need to be dropped. The officers need to be fired. And the Chief as well,” she said.