Bradenton Police Defend Use of Force


Herald Tribune
May 26, 2007

BRADENTON -- Police say they did the right thing when they opened fire on the car of a possible drug dealer outside a restaurant at one of Manatee's busiest intersections Thursday.

But the attempted arrest -- based solely on an informant's tip and not hard evidence -- went bad.

One officer was struck by the suspect's car, the suspect himself was shot and a stray bullet flew into a restaurant booth during the dinner hour.

No one was hit by the stray bullet, but the shooting has set off an internal police review and led to criticism from residents and the suspect's relatives, who say police put innocent lives in danger over the possible sale of a $40 bag of heroin.

By late Friday, police had not found any heroin. The Bradenton police chief admitted there is confusion about the nickname of the suspect provided by the informant. And the suspect's attorney says the police may not have been focusing on the right guy.

The 5:45 p.m. shooting at the KFC at U.S. 301 and 6th Avenue East is not the first time a Bradenton police drug arrest in a public setting has led to gunfire.

In June 2004, Bradenton police tried to make an arrest over the sale of a gram of heroin in the parking lot of a Walgreens on Manatee Avenue West. Once confronted, the suspect ran a police car off the road, shot out his car window and spurred a high-speed chase through residential neighborhoods before shooting himself.

And Manatee County does not have to look back more than a few days to see what a stray bullet can do. Police believe a gang member accidentally shot and killed 9-year-old Stacy Williams III on Monday while people fought nearby.

Police Chief Michael Radzilowski said officers sometimes have to make drug arrests in high-traffic public areas because that is where dealers are doing their business.

Radzilowski said it is often safer for police to confront suspects immediately in a controlled situation rather than let them escape and try to chase them down later.

But one resident, who ate Friday at the KFC where the errant shot struck Thursday, said police should make the arrests away from pedestrians and diners.

"They could have followed him to a little more private area instead of shooting in the middle of 5 o'clock traffic," said Dave Driver, 38, of Bradenton. "They could have hit a person walking by, or had a bullet heading towards traffic."

The bullet that entered the KFC broke through a window and hit a dining booth at the level where a patron's abdomen would have been.

The gunfire was justified, Radzilowski said, because the driver struck officers with his car. The officer who was struck most violently was dragged 15 feet and suffered only minor injuries that at first appeared to be much worse.

"He (the suspect) wasn't driving away. He was actively running over people," Radzilowski said Friday. "We don't shoot at vehicles because they are fleeing. We only shoot to stop a life-threatening situation."

Bradenton resident Donatelli Brantley, the 26-year-old suspect, sped off from the restaurant after being confronted by the plainclothes officers. Brantley was struck in the legs by police gunfire; there was no evidence Brantley had a gun or fired at officers.

Brantley surrendered peacefully to police Friday with the help of defense attorney Mark Lipinski.

Charging documents did not say whether police had a warrant for Brantley's arrest before approaching his car. Police confronted the driver before any drug deal had occurred.

The informant told police a dealer known as "Slim" was at the KFC to sell him $40 worth of heroin, and based on that, police took action. The informant, police said, has worked with officers for more than six months and generated a number of arrests.

Undercover officers swarmed the black Saturn that the informant said "Slim" was driving. The driver was the only person in the car.

Authorities say Brantley's car was pinned between unmarked police vehicles. But Brantley, police said, used his car as a battering ram to escape.

Two officers fired three shots total after the undercover officer fell to the ground, police said.

Brantley drove south in the northbound lanes of U.S. 301 before ditching his car at the Bradenton Village Apartments less than a mile from the KFC, according to police reports.

Authorities said they found 4.5 grams of crack cocaine in the car, but no heroin.

Brantley was treated at a hospital for the gunshot wound and booked in the Manatee County jail on charges of aggravated battery against an officer. Brantley, who has two prior drug-related arrests, is expected to appear before a judge this morning.

Family members said Brantley showed up at the KFC to eat a meal and wound up getting shot.

"He didn't have a gun," said a man who identified himself only as a relative of Brantley. "They opened fire on him for no reason. That's not justice."

Radzilowski said he was told there were no other vehicles in the parking lot when police tried to arrest Brantley.

"The public wasn't around," the chief said.

It is not clear how many people were in the KFC, which was open and staffed when the bullet entered. Reports say police told the informant to stay in the restaurant during the drug bust.

That intersection sees an average of 70,000 vehicles a day, and a CVS pharmacy is across the street.

Radzilowski said the shot that hit the restaurant window was "off the mark," probably because the officer who fired it was knocked off balance when hit by the car.

One police expert said it is difficult to make a hindsight judgment on whether a police shooting in the heat of the moment is justified.

Thomas Aveni, a former New Jersey police officer and a law enforcement trainer for the past 25 years, said the public should realize such situations are quick-moving, tense and uncertain. But he acknowledged that opening fire in a populated area is always dangerous.

"These things are never black and white," Aveni said. "You try not to endanger others. Problem is, in an urban environment, or even a suburban environment, there really isn't a safe direction to shoot."

A criminal suspect using a vehicle to attack a police officer runs a good chance of being shot at, national figures show.

About 10 percent of the time that an officer uses deadly force, it is against a vehicle driver, according to the New Hampshire-based Police Policy Studies Council, which advises police departments on training and legal issues.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that police may shoot at suspect vehicles under certain circumstances.

Generally, an officer may do so out of self-defense or to protect others, and to stop a fleeing suspect who has just committed a violent crime.

Florida law follows the Supreme Court guidelines.

"We go over the statutes with officers when they can use deadly force," said Lt. Chuck Lesaltato, spokesman for the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office.

The undercover Bradenton police officer was recovering Friday from a wound to his head. He suffered a gash above his right eye.

The two officers who opened fire were placed on administrative leave, a routine practice with officer-involved shootings.