Sheriff doesn’t stonewall after shooting: That’s good, except when info is wrong

Across the nation in the hours following a fatal police shooting, top law-enforcement officials often remain tight lipped and reveal only scant details as a criminal investigation commences.
Not Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar.
Two women who were not criminals have been shot to death by Indian River County deputies in 2017. In each case, Loar stepped in front of TV cameras within 24 hours of the killing, encountering both criticism and strong community support.
He spoke both times with a somber tone and didn’t mince words as he defended his officers’ actions.
But sometimes, in the early hours of an investigation, details from a crime scene are rapidly changing, and sometimes the sheriff’s earliest remarks prove wrong.
Advocates for the families of Alteria Woods, who was shot 10 times by deputies during a drug raid in Gifford on March 19, and Susan Teel, who was killed by a deputy in her home on July 26, have questioned whether the sheriff’s public statements hamper the likelihood of a thorough and proper investigation.
When the top lawman “exonerates” his deputies before the facts are known, this influences public opinion and Sheriff’s Office personnel conducting the criminal investigation, said Guy Rubin, the Stuart-based defense attorney representing the Teel family.
“I’m very much concerned about this,” he said. “On one level it’s personal to the family who lost a loved one, but in a larger sense we’re talking about trust between law enforcement and the community and we’re seeing all around the country that that trust is seriously broken.”
Teel was “no threat to anyone but herself,” the lawyer said.
Susan Teel, 62, was shot in her bedroom just minutes after her daughter called 911 for help. At 8 p.m. that evening, authorities say, Teel’s husband Dr. Dudley Teel found his wife in the bathtub cutting her wrists with a razor knife. Deputy Jonathan Lozada was on scene by 8:04 p.m. Three minutes later, before his back-up had entered the house, shots were fired and the 118-pound woman was dead.
“The deputy did exactly what he was trained to do,” Loar told reporters the next morning. The Sheriff’s Office has responded to dozens of calls for service at this address, he said. Teel was “attempting to kill [Lozada] with a large butcher knife,” the sheriff continued.  She “lunged” at him and he made a “split-second” decision. It was the “only choice” the deputy had, Loar said.
It’s impossible for there to be a fair review locally after remarks like that are made to the public, said Rubin. The officers now charged to investigate for criminal wrongdoing already know what their boss believes.
Such emboldened rhetoric perpetuates statements that aren’t true, he added. It wasn’t a “split-second” decision, for example. Many seconds went by and questions remain if the officer followed protocol when he knew the subject was armed.
“We’re being critical because we see things that are flawed in the system,” Rubin said. “Fifteen hours later, [while] the yellow tape was still up, the sheriff was exonerating his deputy.”
In an interview, Loar stood by his office’s ability to investigate its own officer-involved shootings and said his intent when speaking to the media is not to exonerate.
His office often broadcasts its press conferences on social media to stay in front of the story and make sure context doesn’t get lost in abbreviated news excerpts.
“I think it is very important to get our message out and I think the community expects that and deserves that,” he said.
Officers like Lozada are young, Loar added. “His peers are looking, thinking, maybe that could have been me.”
Deputies are seeing the same news coverage as everyone else as these officer-involved shootings are dissected online and on TV, he said.
“To say they are not a little apprehensive, I think, would be wrong.”
Across the United States, police are faced with the prospect of going to work and being shot, killed or indicted every day, Loar said. In situations of deadly use-of-force, the intent is not to kill. The intent is to stop a threat.
“When we’re encountered with deadly force, that’s when we use deadly force,” Loar said. “If someone is coming at us with a butcher knife, a pitch fork, something of that nature, when we see deadly force coming at us, we do not use less than.”
Susan Teel’s death, like that of Alteria Woods’, is being investigated by the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office and the Office of the State Attorney for the 19th Judicial Circuit, which encompasses Indian River, Martin, St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties. Deputies were not equipped with body cameras in either incident.
“The police policing themselves does not and cannot work,” shouted community activist Michael Marsh into a bullhorn as he stood outside the Vero Beach court house at a rally earlier this month. In front of the Woods family and reporters, he called the sheriff a liar.
A March 20 autopsy report completed by the District 19 Medical Examiner’s Department shows the 21-year old was shot 10 times by deputies during the early morning raid at a house in Gifford.  Yet hours after her death, Loar stood in front of TV cameras and said, “Unfortunately, one of the rounds fired by a SWAT team member of ours struck an innocent person.”
The sheriff went on to say the young woman’s boyfriend, Andrew Coffee IV, fired at deputies first and used her “cowardly as protection.”  He told reporters about the cocaine and crack found at the crime scene and discussed the Coffee family’s long and sometimes violent past with the police.
Coffee IV has since been charged by a grand jury in Woods’ murder. The deputies involved were not indicted. The medical examiner found no traces cocaine or crack in Woods’ system.
The day before Alteria Woods’ autopsy was made public, Loar acknowledged timing is everything.
“There have been press conferences in the past where it may have been better to wait a little while, but remember, every case is incident specific,” he said. “If we have a volatile situation in a volatile area, there has got to be something.”
It’s a no-win situation, the sheriff added. If there are no public remarks, people think law-enforcement is hiding something. Virtually everything is public record in Florida, he said.  “I think that we’re as open as any agency in the state.”

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