Sgt. Fletch Fuller, of the Collier County Sherrif's Department, demonstrates a simulator used by the department to train deputies and prepare them for dangerous situations. / Jack Hardman/news-press.com
There were at least eight suspect shootings in Southwest Florida in 2012, according to The News-Press analysis of officer shootings.
Four of those shootings were fatal, and six involved Lee County deputies. There has been one fatal officer-involved shooting so far this year — in January, Lee County deputies killed 21-year-old Joseph Blake Powell at a RV park near Alico Road and U.S. 41 during what they described as an exchange of gunfire.
Many of those cases are still under review by the state attorney’s office, which will determine if the officers were justified in shooting or should be disciplined. But taking disciplinary action against an officer involved in a shooting is rare. The state attorney’s office exonerated the officers involved in the 20 cases it reviewed from 2008-2012 in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties.
Fourteen suspects died in 20 shootings from 2008-2012. One resulted in the death of Fort Myers Police Officer Andrew Widman, on July 18, 2008.
In 17 of those shootings, suspects were armed with a gun, reached for an officer’s gun or attempted to hit an officer with a vehicle. In three cases, officers perceived a threat that wasn’t really there — two suspects were armed with BB guns and one suspect was holding a cell phone.
According to the state attorney’s office, those officers who perceived false threats were still justified in shooting.
“The danger facing the person using the deadly force need not have been actual,” according to an excerpt of Florida Standard Jury Instructions quoted in a state attorney’s office report. “Based upon appearances, the person using the deadly force must have actually believed that the danger was real.”
Some shootings appear to be open and shut cases, but some take a little longer to process. After Widman was killed, the officers who shot at his killer were exonerated by the state attorney’s office a week after the incident.
On the other hand, an investigation into the 2011 death of Starling Javier took about six months. A witness told investigators she saw police shoot Javier in the back after he had fallen and was lying on his stomach. She then changed her story and said police shot him in the abdomen while he was on his back. Testimony from other witnesses and officers, and evidence from the medical examiner’s office did not support her claims, according to the state attorney’s office, which exonerated the officers involved.
“While I am concerned with this allegation,” Chief Assistant Randall McGruther wrote in a memo to State Attorney Stephen Russell, “standing alone it is insufficient to overcome the totality of the other evidence.”