By Lee Williams, May 13, 2015
SARASOTA — Just four minutes after he was stopped by Sarasota Police, John Paul Kaafi was Tasered three times and beaten with a flashlight.
Officer Juan Jaimes stopped the car in which Kaafi was riding on May 6 at 8:45 p.m., reportedly for a defective tag light.
Jaimes first Tasered Kaafi at 8:49 p.m., for five seconds, according to the weapon’s discharge report.
Only seconds later, he Tasered Kaafi again.
A few seconds later, Kaafi received another five-second electric burst.
Officer Adam Arena also admitted that he beat Kaafi with his flashlight “to gain control,” according to “draft” use-of-force reports obtained by the Herald-Tribune through a public records request.
“Officer utilized the butt end of his flashlight and struck the suspect in the right side of his torso 3-5 times,” Arena wrote.
None of the force used to gain control of Kaafi during this initial stop was mentioned in the arrest reports that officers submitted to their superiors or in the 1,100-word news release about the incident issued by the Sarasota Police Department in response to intense media interest in the episode.
In a news conference the day Kaafi died at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino was specifically asked whether “brutality” contributed to his death.
“It’s emotional and our hearts go out to the family no matter what the circumstances are, but I don’t believe that is an accurate depiction of what happened, but we can’t really jump to any kind of determination or conclusions until we have all the facts in this case, and at this point we just don’t think that’s a direction it’s going in,” DiPino told the gathered reporters on May 8.
On Wednesday — citing ongoing investigations by both her department and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, which is conducting a death investigation in the Kaafi case — DiPino said she had not yet seen her officers’ use-of-force reports.
“The only thing I was giving a press conference from was the probable cause affidavit,” the chief said.
In general, DiPino said, flashlight strikes to the torso can be an approved defensive tactic at her agency.
“Using flashlights or other means to get compliance is authorized in certain cases,” she said. “We will be reviewing to see if the force is within policy. That’s what the administrative, internal affairs review is for.”
Her department did not immediately comply with a public record request for its defensive tactics curriculum.
DiPino declined to comment further.
Michael Barfield, vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he sees several versions of events: the police chief’s and the officers who were at the scene.
“At best, the probable cause affidavit and the chief’s press conference were misleading. At worst, it’s an obstruction of justice,” Barfield said.
‘They were just beating him
Tim Bess, the driver of the car that Kaafi was riding in, told the Herald-Tribune that the beating was unwarranted.
Bess, 30, said he sat helplessly behind the wheel and watched the officers beat Kaafi “for no good reason.”
“We were both cooperative. We put our hands on the dashboard when they told us to,” Bess said. “He got out and put his hands behind his back. They could have got the cuffs on him easy. He was standing up when they started hitting him. I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden he starts screaming. They took him to the ground and were hitting him.”
One of the flashlight blows, Bess said, missed Kaafi and dented his car door.
“He wasn’t fighting — he was no kinda fighting. They were just beating him,” Bess said.
After Kaafi was taken from the scene, Bess wrote and signed a written statement: “I gave a black male a ride and the cops found spice which did not belong to me, and I saw the black male shove something into my glove box.”
Bess, who said he has known Kaafi for five months, said he only wrote what the officers wanted.
“I told them it was not my stuff, and they said to write that he put it in the glove compartment because that was the kind of statement they needed,” Bess said. “I didn’t want to go to jail, so I wrote what they told me. I got a life. I didn’t want to go to jail. I’ve got to work.”
Walt Zalisko, a retired police chief and police best-practices expert who owns Fort Myers-based Global Investigative Group, said he has seen officers use flashlight strikes to gain compliance before.
“What’s the difference between that and a nightstick? If he was all doped up, chances are the officers would have had to use more force to have him comply,” Zalisko said. But if there were other officers present during the arrest, as there were on the evening of May 6, Zalisko said no strikes may have been necessary.
“If they had other officers there, you don’t actually need to be striking anyone with a flashlight,” Zalisko said. “You sit on somebody like that and take their hands behind their back.”
Zalisko also said that he had never heard of a “draft” use-of-force report. “There’s a form. You complete it and submit it,” he said.
Kaafi, 33, died at 7:46 a.m. on May 8 at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. The cause of death has not yet been determined.
The circumstances of his death remain under investigation by the Sheriff’s Office.
The Sarasota Police Department is also conducting an internal affairs investigation of the incident. Three police officers have been placed on paid administrative leave.
According to reports, officers stopped Bess’s vehicle near Eighth Street and North Orange Avenue to check a non-working tag light.
Sarasota officers described Kaafi’s behavior as erratic. They reported that he was chewing, licking his lips and acting extremely nervous.
Officer Jaimes initially requested an ambulance at the scene because Kaafi reported trouble breathing, but Jaimes canceled the ambulance 37 seconds later, telling dispatchers: “You can cancel rescue. He’s had a miraculous recovery.”
Civil rights advocates and law enforcement experts have questioned why officers would make their own “medical assessment” of Kaafi’s health and cancel the ambulance, rather than let medical personnel come to the scene and make their own determination.
They allegedly found “several white crumbs” of cocaine and two baggies of “spice,” a designer drug, in his possession.
After allegedly finding a small amount of drugs, the officers arrested Kaafi and drove him to the Sarasota County jail.
On the way, Kaafi somehow managed, while handcuffed, to climb out of the window of the police car while it was stopped in traffic at Ringling Boulevard and U.S. 301 and run away.
Kaafi was recaptured a short distance away after falling down and again being Tasered at least twice by an officer.
The dispatch tapes reveal that the foot pursuit lasted less than a minute.
Kaafi was taken to jail, but was never booked.
In the jail sally port, Kaafi reported an asthma attack and officers called an ambulance.
During this radio call, the officer described Kaafi as “conscious and breathing.”
A video taken in the sally port shows Kaafi on the ground while several officers stood near him.
Kaafi was taken to the hospital, and sheriff’s deputies were sent to guard him, technically placing him in their custody.
Kaafi had an extensive criminal history, which includes arrests for possession of marijuana and cocaine, resisting police with violence, disorderly conduct, home invasion robbery, aggravated assault on police, fleeing police, escape, burglary and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.
Bess, too, has been arrested before. Some of his charges include sale of rock cocaine and Oxycodone. He also is listed as a “habitual traffic offender,” although his license is currently valid.
Lee Williams, May 13, 2015, “Police beat man who later died, report says”, Sarasota Tribune, http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20150513/ARTICLE/150519870/2416/NEWS?Title=Police-beat-man-who-later-died-report-says