Three Boynton Beach police officers took part in an illegal “beatdown” of a suspect, then concocted a cover-up when they found out they had been videotaped by a hovering helicopter, prosecutors told jurors Tuesday.
Defense attorneys for the three men, only one of whom still works in law enforcement, told the jury the criminal trial is an unfair attempt by prosecutors to second-guess how the officers handled a very dangerous arrest.
“People want to second-guess them after the fact. … The government is Monday-morning quarterbacking,” defense attorney Bruce Reinhart said during opening statements in federal court in West Palm Beach.
But prosecutors quickly followed up with damaging testimony from three fellow law enforcement officers – who expressed concerns about how the incident, and the aftermath, was handled by the defendants.
The trio accused of inflicting the beating – Officer Michael Brown and former officers Justin Harris and Ronald Ryan – have pleaded not guilty to federal charges that could send them to prison if they are convicted.
Prosecutors say Brown, Harris and Ryan used “excessive force” by beating and kicking the front-seat passenger and using a stun gun on him after a high-speed chase on Aug. 20, 2014.
They also said the officers filed false initial reports about what happened and then adjusted them about a week later after they found out that the beating was videotaped by an overhead helicopter operated by the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office.
The officers had arrested the front-seat passenger, Jeffrey Braswell, on a charge of resisting arrest without violence before they found out about the video.
After realizing what was on tape, they rewrote their reports and added claims that Braswell had resisted them, tried to assault them and appeared to have been reaching for a weapon or trying to escape, prosecutors said. The officers were trying to justify their excessive use of force by making it seem like the suspect resisted them enough to justify what they did, according to the prosecution.
Boynton Beach Police Officer Patrick Monteith testified Tuesday that he saw much of what unfolded after the police chase ended and officers “swarmed” around the suspects’ car. His testimony, which resumes on Wednesday, suggested that Braswell was not resisting during the beating.
Monteith, who told jurors it was a “little bit” uncomfortable to see his fellow officers in court, testified that he had his police rifle trained on Braswell and watched much of what unfolded from just in front of the hood of the suspects’ car.
“I could see his [Braswell’s] hands. His hands were up. … He was blocking blows that were coming [from officers],” Monteith testified.
Braswell, whose seat belt was still on, was jerking back and forth in the seat from the blows like he was in a washing machine, Monteith said.
When one of the officers, Brown, fired his Taser stun gun without warning, Monteith said he initially thought one of the suspects had fired a gun.
“I very nearly shot this guy [Braswell],” Monteith said.
Monteith’s testimony could be key because the video, shot by the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, is not totally clear. It was recorded by a night-vision camera that detects heat from bodies and vehicles and renders somewhat fuzzy black and white images, rather than clear daylight video.
The defense attorneys for all three men are arguing that the overhead video does not depict what officers on the ground could see and that it’s unfair for others to second-guess their actions.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Osborne told the jury the officers’ initial reports did not match what is clear from the video: “Not even close. … This video depicts a beatdown.”
After Brown watched the video with his supervisor, all three officers changed their reports, she said.
“They took pains to cover up what they did,” Osborne told the jury.
The defense told jurors the evidence will show that the officers did not use excessive force. The officers may have left out some details or not included absolutely everything that happened when they filed their initial reports that were filed just hours after the incident, the defense lawyers said.
The defense argued that officers had ticked a box on a separate “use-of-force” form, which indicated there had been some kind of physical contact or struggle with the suspect.
Boynton Beach Police Chief Jeffrey Braswell testified that ticking a box – on an internal police department form he said is used to compile statistics and help with training – was not sufficient. He said the officers were required to document, in more detail and in their first versions of their reports, what had happened.
The case involves a 12-minute high-speed chase that began when another officer tried to pull over the three occupants of a Mitsubishi car for a traffic infraction in Boynton Beach. The vehicle took off and went north on Interstate 95 to Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach and then south on the highway to Lake Worth.
Before Brown finally forced the car to stop, on a suburban street in Lake Worth, the chase had reached 80 to 100 mph, authorities said.
Someone threw white powder out of one of the windows and the car “clipped” an officer who was trying to stop it during the chase, prosecutors said. That officer also was struck by one of the police vehicles, but he survived.
Only three of the nine or 10 officers at the scene are facing criminal charges. All three were involved in the arrest of Braswell.
Chief Katz, who prosecutors said conducted an “integrity” test of his officers when the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office sent him the helicopter video of the incident, told the jury he had hoped the officers’ initial reports would match what was on the video. When the reports didn’t explain what was on the video, he asked the FBI and state prosecutors to investigate and federal charges were filed earlier this year.
Brown is on paid leave while the criminal case is pending. Harris and Ryan left the department before the charges were filed and are no longer working as officers.
The trial resumes on Wednesday.