But what's happening in Florida is different. In Pinellas County (near St. Petersburg), there is a matter developing that involves the drownings of three black teenage girls in a stolen car, sheriff's deputies pursuing the car and allegations that deputies may not have done all they could to rescue the girls when the car went into a cemetery pond.
What's clear is that a lot about this matter is not yet clear. But this much we do know from sheriff's deputies and local news reports: The car in which the girls were riding (law enforcement officials say they don't know who was driving) was stolen from a Walmart late on March 30 from a person giving the girls a ride. In the past year, the three girls had been arrested in connection with stealing seven other cars among them.
Several hours later, about 3:30 a.m., a sheriff's deputy spotted the vehicle driving the speed limit with its headlights off. The sheriff's deputy turned on his emergency lights. The car didn't stop, ran a red light and continued driving the speed limit. The deputy ran the car's tags. It had by then been reported stolen. The deputy followed the car at a distance. The stolen car crossed paths with a marked sheriff's car and ran another red light. This is what law enforcement officials say happened next, from the Tampa Bay Times:
At speeds between 30 to 35 mph, the Honda navigated the narrow roads of the cemetery. It was dark, with the glowing lights of Interstate 275 in the distance. Deputies, with their emergency lights off, slowly followed behind.At a sharp bend in the road about 4 a.m., the car stayed on a straight course, then slipped into a pond.It drifted about 20 yards into the muddy waters. Deputies shed their gun belts and equipment and waded in to save whoever was inside. But the mud was so thick, [Sheriff Bob] Gualtieri said, it stopped them from venturing farther into the pond.Within five minutes, the Honda submerged in about 15 feet of water."That car became a death chamber," the sheriff said. "That was a very horrific event for those girls sitting in that car."
A wrecker pulled the car from the pond two hours later, the Miami Herald reported under the headline, "Were deputies heroes or bystanders as three teens drowned?"
It is a question far easier asked than answered. Although Florida law requires police cruisers to include a dashboard camera capable of recording events, some of the St. Petersburg police and Pinellas County sheriff's deputies who responded to the scene either did not record events or their vehicles were positioned in such a way that much of the action in and around the pond happens off-screen but within range of police communication devices.
The Pinellas County sheriff has released some footage, and a lawyer representing two of the drowned girls' families has released additional footage obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request. That lawyer, Michele Whitfield, shared this footage with The Fix.
After viewing all the available footage made available, it does appear that the officer trailing the vehicle most closely at the moment it goes into the water immediately alerts dispatch to the fact that the the car is in water. As the pond sits inside a cemetery, there are few lights in the immediate area except those coming from a distant road, the rapidly sinking car and the deputy's vehicle.
That deputy then parks and leaves his vehicle and, within seconds, returns to request a rescue team with a boat. The car's headlights and some of the car's rear end are still visible above the reed and scum-filled water. Soon, more officers arrive. And the radio traffic and dash-cam recordings seem to narrate a triple drowning.
"I see a foot coming out."
"There's nobody out."
"It's almost fully submerged."
"I hear 'em yelling, I think."
"They are done."
"I don't see anybody swimming away."
Two officers move along the banks of the pond, shine their flashlights in the area where the car was last visible, talk to other officers arriving at the scene and appear dry throughout the video. A third officer walks past a dash-cam in an undershirt with some of his gear and clothing in his arms. He looks as if he may be wet. Then, officers begin to discuss possible escape routes out of the pond and which portions of the surrounding area they or others will search.
Then, there's talk about reporters showing up at the scene and keeping them out of the immediate area of the pond. Two hours passed before a tow truck arrived and pulled the car out of the pond with the girls' bodies inside.
The families of the girls and their attorneys are asking questions, wondering in public spaces whether the deputies who were there when the car went into the water did all that they could to save the girls. Pinellas County Sheriff's Office procedure also prohibits vehicle chases. At least one of the girls' parents disputes the claim that the car was stolen. And all of the girls' parents, as well as area activists, are questioning whether the girls' lives were considered less valuable and the risk of trying to save them less logical because they were black girls who at this point had been spotted driving a stolen car.
"I think the thing that is happening here is that we had what may be 12 to 15 officers stand on the banks and listen to these girls scream and decline to come to their aid," said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington. The Advancement Project also does research and advocacy work in Pinellas County because of the volume of students arrested at school and because of school quality. "That's just chilling. And the thing that we have to remember here is that whatever these young girls were doing, grand theft [auto] is not a crime punishable by death."
Sheriff Gualtieri has repeatedly described grand theft auto as an epidemic in Pinellas County. He has formed a special task force, applied for outside funding and announced plans to focus on auto thefts in the area. After the girls drowned, he told local reporters that his deputies deserve to be commended for their actions. He has also told reporters that there are dash-cam videos that show officers who took off gear and tried to wade into the pond only to get mired in the mud. After nearly an hour of dash-cam footage of the vehicle pursuit and time at the pond was posted on YouTube, the sheriff mounted a social media defense, the Miami Herald reported.
It's disturbing stuff and a situation full of complicated questions.
For now, expect this case to join the list of those about which some people are riled and others are hardly interested. Lawyers and other staff members with the Advancement Project are expected to join with the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based civil rights organization, and others to lead a series of protests in St. Petersburg this week. The demonstrations aim to draw attention to the women and girls of color who died under what activists consider suspicious circumstances after contact with law enforcement officers.