Florida police duo who slammed black teen's head suspended as outrage grows

Richard Luscombe in Miami


Two Florida sheriff’s deputies who pepper-sprayed and punched a 15-year-old black student in the head during a violent arrest were beginning a paid suspension on Wednesday, amid growing calls for the officers to be fired.

Cellphone video of the incident, which has been widely shared on social media, also captured the two white officers body slamming the boy, Delucca Rolle, to the ground and smashing his face into the concrete several times.

The episode has reignited tensions in Broward county, where a new sheriff was appointed in January to restore confidence after his predecessor was fired for perceived failures before and during the Parkland high school shooting of February 2018.

Celebrities including the basketball star LeBron James and rapper Jim Jones have shared their concerns on social media, helping the hashtag #JusticeforLucca go viral.

“It’s child abuse,” said Sue-Ann Robinson, attorney for the teenager’s family. “He’s 15 years old, he’s an eighth-grader. The actions by the officers on the video are unconscionable.”

Rolle was one of a number of youths from a nearby high school who had gathered outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Tamarac, Florida, after lessons last Thursday. Rolle’s family insist he was picking up a cellphone that a classmate had dropped when one officer, who was present because of a fight between students the day before, pepper-sprayed and jumped on him.

The Broward state attorney, Mike Satz, met the boy and his family on Tuesday, and announced he was dropping all charges against the student and continuing to pursue a criminal investigation into the officers’ conduct.

Gregory Tony, the Broward sheriff who has been conducting his own internal inquiry, and suspended the deputies on Tuesday night – five days after the incident – clashed with local politicians in Tamarac on Wednesday morning, calling Satz’s investigation premature and “a mistake”.

“I think it’s because of the level of political impact and the cries that have been occurring not just in our community but across the country,” he said during a testy meeting of the Tamarac city commission, in which he promised transparency and defended his handling of the episode.

In an angry exchange with the Tamarac commissioner Marlon Bolton, who called the video “heartbreaking”, Tony said he would “not stand here and be lectured to about the laws of investigative practices” by those who lacked his experience in law enforcement.

Bolton fired back: “That is the same aggression that your officers used when they pushed one of our young people to the ground.”

Related: 'A type of justice': Florida reform school yields evidence of more graves

Wednesday’s clash mirrored the growing disquiet, both locally and nationally, sparked by the video and images of Rolle’s bloodied face as he sat handcuffed on the ground.

Protesters picketed the Broward sheriff’s office headquarters in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, carrying placards demanding that the two deputies – named as Christopher Krickovich and Gregory LaCerra – be fired. They plan to hold a rally to support Rolle at a park close to JP Taravella high school in Coral Springs on Saturday.

The civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who has been retained by Rolle’s family, said in a statement: “It is unconscionable what we’ve seen happen to Lucca at the hands of local law enforcement who are sworn to serve and protect. Once again we see that this promise does not extend to people of color.”

Gary Farmer, a Florida state senator, said the deputies’ actions were “an excessive use of force on an African-American child”. He called for their dismissal.

“Incidents like this are a disgrace for the sheriff’s department and undermine the ability of law enforcement to properly carry out their job,” he said. “This is police brutality, plain and simple.”

The union representing the officers insist they felt “surrounded, outnumbered and threatened” by a large group of students and did nothing wrong. Krickovich said Rolle had taken “an aggressive stance” and that he punched the teen in the head as “a distractionary tactic”.

The episode is a setback to Tony’s aim of restoring public confidence in the Broward sheriff’s office in the aftermath of last year’s Parkland shooting, in which police deputies were labelled cowards for waiting outside as a gunman claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school, five miles from Taravella.

Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, fired Sheriff Scott Israel in January and installed Tony as the county’s first black sheriff. Tony said on a Wednesday that a weekend meeting with black community leaders was pre-planned and not a reaction to the video.

“We create these falsehoods in our heads that this was a strategic play to get all the black elected people in one room,” he said. “My focal point was to get the people so we can understand the issues in our community and specifically the minority base here. It’s not some pretend effort, folks.”