By Tonya Alanez and Lisa J. Huriash
Two Broward sheriff's deputies recorded pepper-spraying, tackling and punching teens outside a McDonald's near J.P. Taravella High have been informed by letter that they are under investigation by the Broward State Attorney's Office for possible criminal charges, their union president said Monday.
Prosecutors confirmed Monday that they had opened an investigation into last week's confrontation between deputies and students but did not specify whether criminal charges were a possibility.
The footage, widely shared through social media, has drawn a public outcry. It shows two deputies take a boy down, bang his forehead into the pavement and repeatedly punch him in the head.
"This incident is under investigation by my office," Broward State Attorney Mike Satz said in a statement, regarding Broward sheriff's deputies' interaction with students outside the fast-food restaurant at 8735 N. Pine Island Road in Tamarac.
"We are 110% backing the two deputies and actions they took," Bell said. "What you see in the video may be upsetting to some people, but it's exactly what we've been trained to do since Greg Tony took office," said Jeff Bell, president of International Union of Police Associations.
Deputy Christopher Krickovich reported that he and two fellow deputies felt surrounded, outnumbered and threatened by about 200 students. He moved quickly, "fearing I would get stuck or having a student potentially grab weapons off of my belt or vest," he wrote in his report.
Two teens were arrested Thursday afternoon about a half-mile from the high school in Coral Springs, one of them a 15-year-old boy who was released from custody to his mother the next day.
"Our prosecutors and investigators had already scheduled a meeting for Tuesday with the attorney for the 15-year-old student," Satz said. "The student's family has hired a new attorney, and we are arranging a meeting with the new lawyer as soon as they are available."
Pressure mounted Monday for the Broward Sheriff's Office to take action as public officials came out loud and strong, offended by the deputies' violent and forceful handling of a child.
"This was police brutality, plain and simple," state Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said in a tweet Monday afternoon.
He was sickened by what he saw and the community was rightly outraged, Farmer said. He called for the deputies to immediately be relieved of their duties.
That soon was followed Monday evening by a statement of outrage from a delegation of Democratic Broward County congressmen and women made up of Alcee Hastings, Ted Deutch, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson.
"Rather than de-escalating the situation, the deputies appear to have dramatically overreacted with a disproportionate use of force," the joint statement emailed from Hastings' office said. "At a time when unarmed black children are being beaten and killed at an alarming rate by law enforcement in this country, we appreciate that Sheriff Gregory Tony is conducting a thorough investigation."
They urged the newly appointed sheriff to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation and to reassess crisis training and response techniques to ensure "this type of incident does not occur in our community in the future."
Tony released his video-recorded response to the incident the day after it happened.
"It may take some time, but we will be transparent," the sheriff said. "And if folks need to be held accountable, it shall be done."
The Broward Sheriff's Office released documents that identified two of the deputies involved -- Krickovich and Sgt. Greg LaCerra. The agency said Krickovich was placed on restricted assignment pending an investigation. As of Monday, LaCerra's position with the agency remained unchanged, the agency said. But Bell, the union president, disputed that, saying he had also been placed on restricted duty.
Bell said, "It's very disappointing that [Tony's] crumbling now that he's feeling a little political pressure. We're taught to do one thing and now he's turned his back on his deputies."
The prosecutor who oversees the juvenile division in the Broward State Attorney's Office, Maria Schneider, said no decisions had been made on whether the boy in the video would face formal charges. He was arrested on a charge of aggravated assault against a law enforcement officer. A judge reduced it to simple battery.
"We are evaluating all aspects of the incident, and we will take appropriate action when we are done," she said via email Monday evening.
Defense attorney Richard Della Fera, who represented the boy in court last week, said the child did nothing wrong and the video was "the equalizer" that proved it.
"Everything [the deputies'] describe in this incident is refuted by this video," Della Fera said. "I don't know what they're going to say this kid did aggressively. He took an aggravated stance with his fists clenched? Well, that didn't happen."
And throwing the boy to the ground after he was pepper-sprayed point blank in the face was way out of hand, he said.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel isn't naming the 15-year-old boy because he's a minor facing misdemeanor offenses.
Classmates of the boy, a Taravella freshman who lives in North Lauderdale, said they are still stinging from last week's viral encounter with the Sheriff's Office.
On Monday, a half-dozen sheriff's squad cars and motorcycles were parked at the McDonald's across the street from the high school in Tamarac. It's where kids hang out and grab a bite after school. It's also the spot where Thursday's melee erupted.
After deputies arrested the first boy, the 15-year-old boy stepped forward to pick up his classmate's phone on the ground, said John Brown, 16, a sophomore from Coral Springs, whose still feeling "sad and angry" about what he witnessed.
"That's when things got bad," said another witness, Keylani Canton, 19, a senior from Tamarac.
The kids were expecting two separate fights to break out, she said. That's when the deputies tried to stave off problems, she said, by taking aim and challenging: "who wants to get pepper-sprayed?"
Most of the kids cleared out amid the threat of being pepper-sprayed, but one teen wound up in handcuffs, students said. When the teen went after his friend's phone, he wound up part of the mess, students said.
Krikovich, in a report, said he was "dealing with" another boy who he had face down on the ground when the boy's phone slid away.
"I observed a teen wearing a red tank top reach down and attempt to grab the male student's phone," Krickovich wrote.
That's when, according to Krikovich's account, the teen "took an aggressive stance" toward LaCerra "and began clenching his fists."
That claim is not supported by the cellphone footage that captured the beating, according to Della Fera, students and others.
Canton said the teen in the video questioned the two deputies on top of him, asking "why did you push me" before one of them smacked his forehead into the ground.
"I was cursing [the deputy] out," Canton said. "I was mad, upset. That's not the way you treat a child."
"Everyone was screaming: He's bleeding! Stop!" said Lee Castro, a 15-year-old freshman from North Lauderdale. "Why would they do that to him? Even when they found the kid from Douglas [the shooter who killed 17 people in Parkland] they didn't hit him."
"They did not have to hit him like that," Castro said.
Castro and Canton took a stand Monday by wearing red to school. Castro sported a red polo. Canton donned a red dress. The boy who was beaten had worn a red shirt.
Several students wore shades of red on Monday, Canton said, in solidarity with the 15-year-old boy and in silent protest of his treatment.
He's "a chill, funny person," Castro said.
"He has a mouth," but he's not a troublemaker, she said.
A peaceful rally is planned for Saturday afternoon at Hampton Pines Park in North Lauderdale, with attendees encouraged to wear red. The gathering is scheduled for 3 to 5 p.m. at 7800 Hampton Blvd.
(c)2019 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)