LADY LAKE — “Stop the car!” the Lake County Sheriff’s Office deputy shouted.
“Stop the ….”
The next sound on the deputy’s body camera is the sound of four rapid shots from his handgun, squealing tires and the white Dodge Charger heading toward him.
“Shots fired!” he shouted into his radio, as the car veered to the left raced through a traffic light. “Shots fired!”
Two of the three people in the car were injured by the gunfire.
Law enforcement chased the car all the way to a mobile home park south of Leesburg, where they bailed out and ran to a Dunkin’ on U.S. 27, where they were arrested.
Was the deputy’s use of force shooting justified? Legal?
That’s the question before investigators with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office, which are looking into the incident, as is standard procedure in law enforcement shootings.
What potentially makes this case tricky is that the sheriff’s office has a policy against shooting at or from moving vehicles.
“Such action is prohibited because experience has shown that it is rarely effective and is extremely hazardous to innocent persons,” the department’s policy manual states.
“The only exception is to defend human life when there is no reasonable alternative, and the use of deadly force will not increase the danger to the deputy or others.”
Our previous coverage:More details released in sheriff’s deputy shooting at suspects’ car
The policy also states that a deputy should not “draw or display a firearm unless there is a concern for their own personal safety or the safety of others.”
LCSO Lt. John Herrell is reluctant to comment on the case since it is being investigated by FDLE.
But after looking at the video, he said: “I think it is very, very clear he acted appropriately.”
Herrell said he is prohibited by law from releasing the deputy’s name until the case is resolved.
The policy against shooting at moving vehicles is not unique to the Lake sheriff’s office. Some agencies, including the sheriff’s office in Orange County, have been raked over the coals and even sued for shooting at vehicles.
In 2010, 10 deputies fired 137 rounds at a suspected car thief in an apartment complex, spurring a federal judge to say: “The conduct at issue here is more akin to an execution than an attempt to arrest an unarmed suspect,” the Orlando Sentinel reported.
More than 100 rounds missed their mark and some hit nearby Pine Hills apartments.
Torey Breedlove’s family settled a lawsuit against the county. The deputies were cleared in the shooting.
In 2020, a Brevard County deputy killed two teens in a car. Deputies were investigating a stolen car report and followed a suspect vehicle into a neighborhood. The deputy approached the two teens and ordered them to stop. He fired when the car moved forward, the sheriff said.
Prosecutors did not press charges against the deputy, but the county is being sued by family members, according to Florida Today.
On Wednesday night, Osceola County sheriff’s deputies killed one man and injured three others when they got into a car outside a Target during a shoplifting arrest. The sheriff’s office has released few details about that shooting, news outlets report.
The Atlantic magazine published an article on May 21 last year with the headline, “Why Do Police Keep Shooting Into Moving Cars?”
“There’s a big difference between whether they were justified — that’s one standard — and could have this been avoided? That’s a different standard. Those are two different questions,” Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told the magazine.
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper in 2015, Wexler said: “If an officer puts himself in a position where they have no alternative to use deadly force, they will use deadly force. What you really want them to do is to think ‘I should not stand in front of this car. I should not put myself in a position to where I have no alternative.’”
In the Lake County case, the initial call was about three men who were using stolen credit cards to buy gift cards at Walmart. The men were seen leaving in a white Dodge Charger with a temporary tag.
“The deputy spotted the vehicle northbound on US 27/441 and was following it for maybe a half a mile or so,” Herrell said. “It then made somewhat of an abrupt turn into the Water Oaks subdivision, at which time the deputy pulled in behind it as it was quickly attempting a three-point turnabout due to the security bar being down. That’s when you see the deputy get out of his car, ordering it to stop. So, he was about to pull them over when they suddenly tried to elude him.”
The video shows the driver turning the car around a short distance from where the deputy was standing and veered left at the last second.
It is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. Police are forced to make split-decision decisions, and when suspects try to flee, or turn a 4,000-pound machine into a potential weapon, bad things can happen.
The three men in the Charger on Monday were not armed, but the driver, 20-year-old Jeffrey Gilbert, was charged with using the car as a weapon when he was charged aggravated assault with a motor vehicle on a law enforcement officer.
Law enforcement agencies also do not like pursuits, citing a danger to other drivers, but the charge against Gilbert was about a violent felony, which officials say justified the chase.
Gilbert, front-seat passenger Pierre D’Haiti, 20, and Calvin Williams, 20, who has been identified as the rear seat passenger, were all arrested and charged with possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana and possession of schedule one drugs with intent to sell.
Police said they found the drugs and related items in the Dunkin’ restroom.
Authorities have since added the stolen credit charges to Gilbert and D’Haiti. Both are charged with criminal use of personal identification, fraudulent use of a credit card and petty theft from the alleged incident at Walmart.
The two injured men have been released from the hospital. It is not clear which two were injured. All three are at the Lake County Jail.
The deputy has been placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is standard operating procedure.