Uhuru Movement deepens the struggle against Pinellas sheriffs for their murder of three black girls

The Uhuru Movement, on behalf of the African community, has called for the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to investigate the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office for the murder of black teenagers, cover-up of evidence that would indict the deputies, and a pattern of illegal stops, police chases, searches, and arrests which violate the 4th amendment rights of black residents. 

At a press conference held on Thursday, November 10, 2016 at the Uhuru House in St. Petersburg, Florida, Akilé Anai put forward the black community’s demands, including:

·         Sheriff killer Bob Gualtieri must go!

·         Deputy Howard Skaggs must be indicted for murder and face trial.

·         Reparations to the families of Dominique Battle, Ashaunti Butler and La’Niyah Miller.

·         Black Community Control of the Police.

·         The City of St. Petersburg must ban the Pinellas Sheriffs Department from entering St. Petersburg.

Chairman Omali Yeshitela took the podium to recall a few of the numerous local cases of police murder and cover-up of crimes against the black community and called for the media to take up their responsibility to investigate these crimes.

“In every instance [of police murder of black residents] it is our community that is on the defensive. We always hear about these great heroes, the police or deputies, who are afraid of these unarmed teenagers, afraid to go into the water to rescue these children. None of this could happen without the assistance of the media.

“A year after the assassination of 18-year-old TyRon Lewis by James Knight and Sandra Minor, the St. Pete Times ran a story that showed how everything that James Knight claimed to have done was a lie. But Knight is still with the police department. In every instance this community rises up because there is no justice.

“There is no justice and that’s why half the people locked up in this country are black. There’s no curiosity shown by the media as to why it is that the Indigenous people whose land was stolen or the African people who were kidnapped into slavery are the ones who are in prison or shot down by the police today. It’s just referred to by the media as bad community police relations.

“We saw the St. Petersburg mayor bulldoze the house to destroy the evidence of the police murder of Hydra Lacy. It was learned that Hydra Lacy had surrendered and been handcuffed when the police began to taser and torture him and that’s when the police were killed.

Chairman Omali addressed the recent high-speed chase where Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies forced a car occupied by three black teenage girls into a lake and watched them drown. “There’s no justification that there were 17 cops on the scene when the only thing the girls were being followed for was a traffic violation.”

PCSO’s practice of discriminatory policing against black residents 

Attorney Aaron O’Neal presented the letter that he is sending to attorney general Loretta Lynch, dated November 10, 2016, which reads:

“On behalf of the black community of Pinellas County, the Uhuru Movement, it’s various national and local organizations, and victims of Pinellas County police misconduct are requesting that the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division promptly initiate a pattern and practice investigation into whether there are systemic violations of the constitution or federal law by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO).

“We believe that the PCSO has routinely engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing against black residents that includes the discriminatory use of excessive and deadly force as well as illegal stops, police chases, searches, and arrests which violate the 4th amendment rights of black residents.

“We ask for a review of the adequacy of the PCSO’s review and investigation of police complaints of misconduct and use of force.

“To this end, we ask that a thorough review be conducted of their current police training and general orders that have lead to the discriminatory treatment of black residents in the county. We also ask that a full investigation be conducted to review the PCSO’s role in the disparity of black students in school related arrests. Given PCSO’s long history history of complaints and concerns from black residents, we believe such an investigation is warranted.

“The depth and breadth of the PCSO’s disparate of the black community cannot be viewed in isolation of the conditions of black residents in Pinellas County, particularly as it relates to black youth. In the city, south side of St. Petersburg, 48 percent of black residents live in poverty. In Pinellas County, black residents are arrested for marijuana offenses at six times the rate of whites. A June 2013 analysis found that over one-quarter of all black men in St. Petersburg were incarcerated or under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

“During the 2014-2015 school year, though only 19 percent of the Pinellas County School System, black students were subjected to 59 percent of all school arrests as they are nearly four times more likely to be arrested than white students.

“In the city of St. Petersburg, situated within Pinellas County, 95 percent of black students in predominately black schools are failing in reading or math.

“In April 2016, the U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into whether the Pinellas County School District systematically discriminates against black children. In October 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Pinellas County School System arguing that black and disabled students are disproportionately arrested and restrained. The suit asks that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice investigate and compel Pinellas County Schools to revise their arrest policies and practices. The Pinellas County School District is currently under investigation for its treatment of black youth, but the PCSO’s responsibility for the arrests of black youth outside of school has been overlooked.

“The drowning death of the three black girls on March 31, 2016 in Pinellas County is the most glaring example of the intersection of the PCSO’s criminalization of black children, illegal stops, illegal police chases, violation of their own general orders, and use of excessive force.

“Dominique Battle, 16, Ashaunti Butler and La’Niyah Miller, both 15, were chased at high speeds reaching up to 90 miles. Pinellas County officers chased the girls into a dark cemetery by way of a winding road directly into a pond.

“It is clear that these officers violated their own general orders as sheriff Gualtieri himself banned high speed chases in 2014. It is important to note that PCSO deputies are trained and equipped as first responders.

“The back seat of every sheriff’s vehicle can be easily removed and used as a flotation device, but the deputies stood by that night and did nothing as the screaming girls sank into the pond. Their car floated for five minutes; in their fear, Dominique, Ashaunti, and La’Niya held each other’s hands so tightly that their hands had to be pried apart once their lifeless bodies were retrieved more than two hours later.

“Sheriff Bob Gualtieri used the criminal history of these young girls to obscure his office’s culpability in their deaths. As explained, the Pinellas County has a history of criminalizing black youth, so it is no surprise that these three girls became victims of this very system.

“The video of the murder of the three girls was released and went viral; there is clear audio of a deputy saying, “I thought I heard screaming.” Another responds, “They’re done. They’re 6-7, dude. They’re f—ing done.” Despite the presence of over a dozen deputies at the scene, none of them went into the water as first responders. The Sheriff claimed that the deputies were unable to rescue the girls because the car had floated 20 yards away; however, the report from the dive team shows that the car was a mere 15-20 feet away.

PSCO deputies’ dubious history of murdering Africans 

“Unfortunately, the drowning of these young girls is not the only instance in which the PSCO has failed to investigate the dubious killings of black residents by their own deputies:

Skaggs and Vickers, the same deputies that lead the chase of the three girls into the pond, was also responsible for the death of 18-year-old Laboriel Felton in December of 2002. Ironically, he too was drowned in a pond.

While driving on the service road to try and avoid a DUI checkpoint, which is the legal right of any motorist, Felton was chased by Deputy Skaggs in an unmarked car. Skaggs pursued Felton with his emergency lights off and continued pursuit even after Felton crashed his car and exited to run.

Vickers then released the deputy dog on Felton causing him to jump in the pond as a means to evade the attack. Skaggs claims he jumped in the pond to save the dog and Vickers, despite the claim by deputies that Felton attempted to drown the dog and Vickers. The dog and the cops came out of the water alive; however, Felton subsequently was hit in the head so hard that he suffered a collapse of his brain.

Photos of the scene from that night show that two back seats from Skaggs’ and Vickers’ cars were used as flotation devices as they are visible on the shore of the pond. The police report reflects a report that Vickers and another deputy took out the rear seat and swam about 10 feet before throwing the seat to save Vickers.

On May 6, 2016, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s murdered 37-year-old Alton Witchard. Gualtieri claimed that Witchard was thereon shot by Deputy Yariel Mata when “Witchard turned and threatened the deputy with his rifle…which made the deputy fear for his life.”
According to the Sheriff, Mata then “fired five times, hitting Witchard twice in the torso and grazing his hand.” The autopsy, however, shows that Witchard was shot several times through the back.

Given this and other circumstances outlined in the report, it is unlikely that Witchard could be holding a rifle; however, there was no further investigation conducted by the PCSO.

In May 2004 sheriff deputies shot 17-year-old Marquell McCullough 15 times during an illegal traffic stop based on the incorrect assumption that McCullough was involved in a drug deal. The deputy’s dash-cam was mysteriously disabled, and no further investigation was performed by the PSCO.

In April 2005, Jarrell Walker, 18, was murdered by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department SWAT team. While Walker was sleeping on a couch in the living room, the SWAT team threw a flash-bang device into his home. Walker rolled off the couch onto the floor and Sheriff’s Deputy Cpl.
Chris Taylor shot him at point blank range in his back, while Walker’s two-year old child was sleeping in the next room. No further investigation was conducted by the PCSO.

“While these cases are fact-specific, the pattern of conduct raises serious questions about the practices that are incompatible with lawful and effective policing and have resulted in an increased mistrust of PCSO by black residents of the county. Each of the aforementioned murders were determined to be justified, and no further investigation was performed by PCSO.

“We respectfully request your immediate attention to this urgent matter. An investigation into whether there are patterns or practice of civil rights violations by PCSO is vital to black residents; the actions outlined in this letter are the linked to the poverty, disparate treatment in housing, employment and education.

We believe that the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, in investigating the PCSO, will find similar patterns or practices as found in Ferguson, Missouri; Cleveland, Ohio; and Baltimore, Maryland.”

“She’s dead” 

Kundé Mwamvita, mother of Dominique Battle, recounted how she learned from sheriff’s deputies that her daughter was dead. “They came to my job and asked me a lot of questions about where were my children and what did they look like. Finally, they just said ‘she’s dead’. They didn’t even care.

“They tried to say I was a bad parent. But they didn’t say I was a bad parent when I was working two jobs, cleaning up after you in the nursing homes.”

“I’m not going to sweep this under the rug. You have committed too many murders on the African community for me to sit and be quiet. I will fight for justice!”

Next up was former candidate for Pinellas County Sheriff James McLynas, a white Pinellas County resident, who ran against current Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. In the election, McLynas won over 100,00 votes despite a media white-out that he attributes to his work exposing criminal activity in Gualtieri’s Sheriff’s Office. McLynas won the highest number of votes ever won by an independent candidate in the state of Florida.

“People are starting to get fed-up with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office” began McLynas. “When I saw the press conference about the three drowned black girls. I researched Howard Skaggs and learned that they had been involved in the death of Laboriel Felton.

“I have a question for Gualtieri: ‘how many black children does a deputy have to kill before they are charged? Apparently more than four, since Deputy Skaggs has killed four and is still on the force.”

Wrongful death lawsuit will be filed

African People’s Solidarity Committee Chairwoman Penny Hess joined the call for justice for the African community and the demands for Black Community Control of the Police.

“We want to express our deepest solidarity with Kundé and the families[TN7] [KM8]  of all the African people we see murdered day after day by the police. What happened to them does not happen in the white community. There are two Americas. One existing at the expense of the others. The police and deputies couldn’t do what they do without the complicity of the white community.

“Not only did the sheriffs force the girls into the pond but stood by and watched them drown. That wouldn’t have happened if the girls were white. We’re calling on others from the white community to take a stand and be part of the struggle to make Gualtieiri, the city, the county and the whole national government to be held accountable and pay reparations.

“We support Black Community Control of the Police. So they can say who polices them, who can come into their community with guns.”

Two local television reporters asked questions regarding the filing of lawsuits. Dan Matics of WTVT Fox 13 TV asked, “Has there been a lawsuit filed?”

Attorney O’Neal responded, “Not yet, but there will be a suit filed. At this time, we are pressing for the Justice Department to investigate.”

Reporter Cait McVey of Bay News 9 wanted to know if this would be a wrongful death suit and O’Neal affirmed that it would be and that it would be filed soon.

For more information, contact justice3dbg@inpdum.org.


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