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Grand Jury Reviews Excessive Force Claim [WATCH DASHCAM VIDEO]

By: Julie Montanaro, James Buechele Email
By: Julie Montanaro, James Buechele Email
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By: James Buechele
October 14, 2013
10:50 p.m.

Tallahassee, FL - After hours of testimony, a grand jury still hasn't decided the fate of two Tallahassee police officers. Jurors began listening to witnesses in the case regarding Christina West who was injured after a DUI arrest last August.

State attorney Willlie Meggs left the courtroom Monday evening looking disappointed that jurors will need more time to come to a decision in the case.

Testimony began early Monday morning and didn't end until after seven in the evening. FDLE instructor Jason Knowles was one of the first to testify using a chart to measure force.

Later, the head of TPD's training division LT. Steve Outlaw went inside. His testimony lasted for almost three hours before he left the second floor courtroom.

Interim police chief Tom Coe gave testimony. City manager Anita Favors was also called to the witness stand accompanied by city attorney Lewis Shelley. Each witness walked by our cameras not making any comment.

The grand jury still has a number of options. They could pursue criminal charges or say the officers were justified in their use of force.

They could also recommend policy and training changes at the department or it could take no action at all.

After the jury was released, Willie Meggs would not comment on the case but said "we're not through" before leaving the Leon County Courthouse.


By: Julie Montanaro
October 14, 2013, 1:45pm

Tallahassee Police Chief Tom Coe and Tallahassee City Manager Anita Favors are expected to testify in front of a grand jury reviewing officers use of force in a controversial DUI case.

It is not clear whether either of the officers involved, Chris Ormerod and Matthew Smidt, will testify. The state attorney says neither one was subpoenaed.

LT Steve Outlaw, head of TPD's training division is waiting to testify.

FDLE special agent Jason Knowles was one of the first to testify. He's FDLE's chief instructor in high liability topics. He walked in with a chart outlining a use of force matrix.

Christina West was not subpoenaed or invited to testify, her lawyer said.


UPDATED by Julie Montanaro
October 14, 2013, 9am

Today a Leon County grand jury will review the actions of Tallahassee Police during the arrest of Christina West.

West was arrested for drunk driving after crashing through the wall of a home in Killearn in August.

A dashboard camera in one of the patrol cars captured the arrest on tape. It shows officers forcing West to the trunk of the patrol car and then to the ground. She wound up with a broken cheekbone, a black eye and other injuries.

West's attorney has already notified the city she intends to sue the city for excessive force.

The officers remain on leave pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation. The chief abruptly retired within days of the release of the tape.

Today a grand jury will review the officers' use of force that night and TPD's use of force policies.

We have a crew at the courthouse and will keep you posted on any decisions.


UPDATED by Julie Montanaro
October 11, 2013

A Tallahassee woman who claims police threw her to the ground during a DUI arrest and sparked an excessive force scandal is now fighting to keep her medical records sealed.

Christina West was arrested for drunk driving after she crashed into a home in Killearn in August.

The arrest was recorded by a police car's dashboard camera.

West claims officers broke her cheek bone and gave her a black eye when they threw her to the car and then to the ground.

Her lawyers are now fighting a subpoena for her medical records. They claim West never would have gone to the hospital if it weren't for the officers' actions that night.

"Law enforcement is trying to get a hold of her medical blood and they're doing it with unclean hands and they're doing it in bad faith," defense attorney Fred Conrad said. "They caused the condition that caused the treatment."

Conrad says attorneys will argue this issue in court at an upcoming hearing. There is no date set for that yet.

Prosecutors would not comment on the subpoena or the move to quash it.


UPDATED by Julie Montanaro
September 18, 2013

A woman who claims Tallahassee Police officers slammed her onto the back of a police cruiser and then to the ground ... has filed notice of her intent to sue the city.

The notice - released in response to our public records request - indicates Christina West intends to sue the city for excessive force, malicious prosecution and violation of her civil rights.

West's attorney said he wants the city to "do the right thing."

"In the event that the city does not resolve this case or doesn't want to resolve this case and I hope they do," Fred Conrad said, "we are prepared to litigate and to fight."

Conrad says the city by law now has six months to respond or he will file suit.

A Leon County grand jury also voted this afternoon to review the arrest at its next meeting on October 14th.

State Attorney Willie Meggs says the grand jury will hear from witnesses and review the videotape then. "I don't know where it will go," Meggs said. There are a range of possibilities anytime a grand jury meets. he said. "I'm not going to speculate on what 20 people may do," Meggs said.

Among the options available to the grand jury? It could result in no action, a no true bill, a presentment or an indictment.

Tallahassee's interim police chief Tom Coe said that is certainly within the state attorney's parameters to take the case to the grand jury, "but based on my review and law enforcement experience," he said "I do not see any criminal actions by the officers involved."

Earlier in the day, Coe said he is changing the department's policy for arrests that result in injury.

"Anytime there's a serious injury, and there's a video tape, for example, from the patrol car videos, we'll pull that video and look at that tape too, to make sure the written report corresponds with the video tape," Coe said.

Coe - who headed up TPD from 1994 to 1997 - took over as interim chief when Dennis Jones abruptly retired last week. That retirement came just days after the videotape of West's DUI arrest went viral.

As for West's notice of intent to sue, Coe said that was not a surprise. "I think we all expected that.," he said.

Copies of the legal notices are attached to this story.


UPDATED by James Buechele
September 12, 2013

Mayor John Marks says he was upset the first time he saw the arrest of Christina West. Whatever the investigation determines about the two officers in question, TPD has a ways to go to reshape its public image.

"Like all of our citizens, I am deeply disturbed by what has happened," said Mayor Marks.

WCTV asked what Marks thinks about the possibility that the community's faith in the Tallahassee Police Department has wavered.

"When an incident like this happens, it cannot help but have an effect on the public trust with police officers and I think under these circumstances they probably did."

Marks says there are a number of things the police department needs to do to regain trust.

"They gotta get the rules and regulations and protocols correct and what's happened under these circumstances. Next, they have to make sure that they're trained. We have to make sure they are trained with that protocol and after that we must make sure that the execution of that protocol is appropriate and correct."

Mayor Marks promises to get to the bottom of the case as the investigation continues.

"We want answers to and I'm anxious to get those answers."


UPDATED by Julie Montanaro
September 11, 2013

Two Tallahassee Police officers at the heart of an excessive force scandal are now on administrative leave.

They were placed on leave last night, just hours after a dashcam video of a DUI arrest went viral

The dashcam video shows officers Chris Ormerod and Matthew Smidt arresting a woman for DUI on AUGUST 10th.

Christina West had slipped her handcuffs, they claim, and started to scuffle when they tried to put them back on.

It's the seconds that follow that sent West to the hospital first and then to jail.

West wound up with a broken cheek bone, a black eye, a bloody nose and more. She's had two surgeries so far.

Charges that she assaulted the officers that night have already been dropped by the state attorney, the officers have now been put on paid leave and Tallahassee Police promise a thorough investigation.

"Anytime someone is injured in our care and anytime force is used there is an internal affairs investigation," TPD Spokesman David Northway said. He says investigators will interview everyone on scene that night.

"Are those officers jobs on the line with the city?"

"I think it's way too soon to say what kind of action might be appropriate and that's totally up to the police chief to decide," said City Attorney Lew Shelley.

A use of force report filed by the officers that night was sent up the chain of command - and according to records released by the city Tuesday night - the use of force was deemed justified by a sergeant and a lieutenant within 24 hours.

"It made me nauseous," city commissioner Scott Maddox said about the first time he saw the video. Maddox was the first to send up a red flag at city hall.

"We need to do the investigation, have an open mind and if we get results back, act on those results and if we did wrong we need to say we did wrong and if we didn't do wrong, the investigation will bear that out," Maddox said.

Maddox sent an email to fellow commissioners September 4th describing what he called a "DISTURBING use of force" and warned them the city could soon face a "substantial liability lawsuit."

Maddox encouraged city leaders to watch the video for themselves. The city attorney sent an email later the same day advising just the opposite. "I would advise you not to review the video or comment on the case," he wrote.

Shelley said today he gave that advice last week because he did not believe the video was public record yet. He says when the state attorney released it Tuesday, all that changed.

Both Matthew Smidt and Chris Ormerod have been with TPD for five years.

We have requested their job reviews and discipline history.

Neither a TPD spokesman or the city attorney could give us a timeline on when the internal affairs investigation will be complete.


Press Release: Tallahassee Police Department

City Releases Details on DUI / Use of Force Incident

At 2:10 a.m. on Saturday, August 10, Tallahassee Police Department patrol officers were called to the area of Delaney Drive and Kilkenny Way in northeast Tallahassee, regarding a vehicle crashing into a house at 3501 Kilkenny Drive. Responding officers located the driver - Ms. Christina West - who stated she was returning from Panama City, FL. While turning onto Limerick Drive from Delaney Drive, Ms. West appeared to have accelerated, missing the right turn at Kilkenny Drive. The vehicle continued straight striking a light pole, stop sign, and continued forward into the yard of 3501 Kilkenny Drive, finally striking the house. Ms. West had three students in her vehicle (all under the age of 18) at the time of the crash. Ms. West said the three were foreign exchange students.

The vehicle came to rest inside the master bedroom of the residence. The owners were not home at the time of the incident. A City of Tallahassee utility crew responded to secure live wires from the light pole. During the subsequent investigation of the crash, Ms. West failed a sobriety test and she reported she had been taking prescription medication while drinking alcoholic beverages prior to the accident. Ms. West was initially arrested without incident, but was removed from the car when it was discovered she had slipped her hands out of the handcuffs. At that time, she resisted arrest, and a struggle ensued in which Ms. West was restrained on the ground in order to facilitate the placement of handcuffs. Ms. West was taken to Leon County Jail where she was recommended for medical treatment. She was then transported to the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital (TMH) for medical clearance, which she received before being transported back to jail for processing. Ms. West sustained a broken orbital bone along with scrapes and bruises to her body.

At TMH, while being cared for by the hospital staff, Ms. West continued disruptive behavior that resulted in charges for assault being filed against her by the nurse on duty.

The officers completed a use of force report documenting the incident, per department policy.

"We are concerned any time an individual is injured while in police custody," said Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones. "Our job is to serve and protect, and that includes victims and suspects. We regret that Ms. West was injured.

"We train our officers in appropriate use of force procedures and my job as Chief is to gather all the facts to determine the appropriateness in this case," Jones said.

Chief Jones has called for an internal investigation, which will include interviews with all the individuals on the scene that night and at the hospital. It will also include reviewing the video to better determine exactly what happened. From a law enforcement perspective, the purpose is to have all the facts of the case so that the chief can take the appropriate action.

The case was sent to the State Attorney, which is standard procedure. In this case, the State Attorney's office made the decision to dismiss the charges of assault on a police officer(s) as well as charges for assault filed against Ms. West by the nurse at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. The remaining charge of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) is awaiting toxicology results.

"We understand that the video is disturbing to watch and it is for us too. We use cameras to help capture events such as this and are making the entire video available as we continue our internal investigation," said Jones.

The city has posted the 45-minute video of the incident, the Probable Cause Affidavit and the Use of Force Report on the city's website talgov.com/TPD. The probable cause affidavit and use of force report are also attached and the video may also be accessed on the Police Department YouTube site .


UPDATED by Julie Montanaro
September 10, 2013

A woman claims Tallahassee Police officers slammed her into a patrol car and onto the ground during a drunk driving stop.

Dash cam video of the arrest was released today. Her attorney calls it "brutal."

Christina West was arrested for drunk driving and assaulting an officer on August 10th.

West says officers slammed her face into the patrol car and threw her onto the ground ... breaking her cheek bone, bloodying her nose and more. She's had two surgeries so far.

The video shows officers getting Christina West out of the patrol car and then an officer yelling "Don't ****ing touch me." The video shows officers then pushing West onto the back of a patrol car and then to the ground. The video shows officers putting a knee to her neck and proceeding to handcuff her. You can hear West screaming for the men to stop.

"I had a physical reaction to that tape the first time I saw that video. It's bad," West's attorney Fred Conrad said.

Christina West was ultimately put back in the patrol car and taken to the hospital. Her injuries were photographed there. West was brusied on her shoulders, legs and back. Photos show she had a black eye that was swollen shut.

"I don't care if she was drunker than cooter brown and took a breath test and blew through the moon ... that's not warranted. That's not okay," Conrad said.

It happened just after 3am on August 10th. Arrest reports say West plowed through the front wall of a house in Killearn - at the corner of Kilkenny West and Limerick Drive.

The Sawner's say luckily they were not home that weekend, because the SUV came right through the wall of their bedroom.

"It pushed our bed all the way to the back side of the house...and tore it all to pieces," homeowner Bobbie Sawner said. She said she's glad to be alive and glad the woman and the teens with her survived the crash too.

When officers Ormerod and Smidt arrived on scene, they put West through a series of field sobriety tests. They say she was slurring her words and had trouble keeping her balance. The video was all captured by a camera in Officer Smidt's car.

The confrontation started when officers asked West to get out of the car to sign a breath test consent form. You can hear her say "Yes,sir" on the tape, but she continued to ask about her husband and her childrens' car seats.

Here's how Officer Chris Ormerod described what happened when he tried to place her in handcuffs.

He wrote in his incident report: "West was placed on the ground where she began to thrash and kick wildly. West kicked me in the groin area and kicked officer Schmidt in the leg." He goes on to write, "West was placed in a thigh lock on the ground as I secured her hands. While handcuffing West's hands, she continued to violently make attempts to grab for my groin area with her hands."

West was charged with driving under the influence, battery on a law enforcement offier and aggravated assault on an officer.

"It was a very disturbing video to me," State Attorney Willie Meggs said.

Meggs says the DUI case is still pending, but he has dropped the battery and assault charges and is still trying to figure out what to do next.

"I didn't see anything in the video that would cause me to believe that this woman needed anybody to use any type of force or restraint on her," Meggs said.

We have asked both Tallahassee Police and the city attorney for comment. They have not yet responded.

The video shows West did consent to a breathalyzer test on scene, but it never happened because of the scuffle. In their reports, officers say, she refused a blood test at the hospital.

You can see a portion of the video tape on our web site. We warn you some of the language is graphic.


By: Julie Montanaro
September 10, 2013

Tallahassee, FL - A Tallahassee woman claims Tallahassee Police Officers slammed her against a patrol car and then to the pavement when she was arrested for DUI.

44-year-old Christina West was arrested August 10th after she ran off the road and struck a house in Killearn.

The state attorney calls the dash cam video of the arrest one of the most disturbing videos he's ever seen.

Eyewitness News has a copy of that video. A copy of that video will be posted online shortly.


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