It was Thursday at a suburban town plaza in Tamarac, Fla., about six miles and 14 months removed from the high school massacre in Parkland, when the consequences of those killings boomeranged in an unexpected way.
A group of teenagers gathered where youths were known to have caused disturbances in the past. A Broward County sheriff’s deputy, a member of the force criticized for failing to stop the killings, spotted one teenager who had previously trespassed, according to arrest records.
That teen’s phone bounced onto the pavement. A 15-year-old went to pick it up and, in a widely circulated video shot by a bystander, he did so in front of a deputy wielding pepper spray. The deputy triggered the spray at the teen’s face, and he only made it a few steps before the deputy threw him to the ground.
Another deputy, Christopher Krickovich, straddled him, smashed his forehead into the asphalt several times and punched him in the head. The teen extended his arms.
“What are you doing?” a girl shouted. “He’s bleeding!”
The arrest and charges against the teenager, coupled with the video, led to wide criticism and prompted an investigation by state attorneys. But they have also posed a difficult question for a community concerned by what many thought was a passive police response to violence: Is this the inevitable result of public demand?
On Tuesday, the Broward County State Attorney’s Office said it would not file charges against the 15-year old. There were pending charges that included aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest without violence and trespassing.
The office is still investigating the actions of deputies during the incident, the state attorney’s office said. Sheriff Gregory Tate said in a statement Tuesday that the deputies are on “suspended status.”
The Broward Sheriff’s Office began more physical and aggressive training after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year —implemented by the new Broward County sheriff, Gregory Tony, who was appointed in January as a result of the controversy over the Parkland response.
The training became violent quickly, some in the office believe, resulting in fractured bones, a detached retina and, in March, bleeding in the brain, said Jeff Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association.
“It’s almost like a ‘Fight Club’ atmosphere,” Bell told The Washington Post.
Bell said full-contact takedown training has become a priority, despite concerns over injuries. The new policy is a direct result of the Parkland response’s perceived shortcomings. And because of that guideline, Bell said, the deputies acted accordingly in Tamarac.
“People want accountability in Broward County," Bell said. "But what the community screams for, and what they want, are two different things.”
Broward County Mayor Mark Bogen disagrees. He called for Krickovich to be fired for the “outrageous and unacceptable” incident. Tony, the sheriff, launched an investigation, saying in a video statement that he was appointed to bring accountability to the force.
“That accountability will be held not just for the sake of when we are right, but in cases when we may be wrong,” he said.
David A. Klinger, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said Bell’s defense obscures the occasional need to evaluate how use-of-force policies take shape in reality.
“Oftentimes, training doesn’t get to the philosophical root to explain to officers why you need to do X, Y or Z,” Klinger said. "Rather, it’s just, ‘Do X, Y or Z.’ It’s very easy for officers to misapply.”
Klinger added: “If there is a problem with the particular use of force, and [deputies] were doing what they were trained to do and told to do, you can’t criticize them. You have to see where it broke down in the chain.”
Occasionally, police doctrine resulting from one crime can mutate into responses to other infractions, Klinger said.
Consider Thursday’s incident, when a lesson from a mass killing may have trickled down to an encounter with an unarmed teen.
It reminded Klinger of the police killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old fatally shot in 2014 after police responded to a call of a young man pointing a gun at people. Tamir had a toy gun and was killed by police.
Later, the officer said he responded to the call as an active-shooter scenario, even though no shots were fired. That mind-set, without the contextualization of threats, Klinger said, may have contributed to the killing. “We have to figure out to teach officers how to identify and define things in a very accurate fashion,” he said.
Bell, the association president, said the teenager in Thursday’s incident was chased and thrown to the ground after being pepper-sprayed to keep him from hurting himself — by being hit by a car, for instance.
An attorney for the teenager, Richard Della Fera, blasted those comments.
“I’m so relieved to hear they’re very concerned for my client’s safety,” he said sarcastically.
The attorney argues that charging documents that described a tense mob of 200 students was overstated, though smartphone video may not have captured everyone at the scene. In the video, about a dozen students appear to be near the deputies.
Della Fera also disputed the idea his client, whom he declined to name, had a fighting stance when he stood next to the deputy. The teen’s arms appear to be at his sides in the video. The J.P. Taravella High School sophomore suffered a broken nose and may have other injuries, Della Fera said.
Della Fera conceded it was a “chaotic situation” at the end.
“But police should be the calmest people in the situation,” he said. “I don’t know what this all has to do with Parkland."
This story has been updated to reflect that pending charges against the 15-year-old have been dropped.