As I’m sure most of you recall, in August 2014, one of our police officers, Jeff Williams, was run over by a vehicle fleeing from police. Jeff’s spine was broken in two places, and had to be fused back together. He lost a piece of one of his ears, his face was permanently disfigured, and during his stay in Delray Trauma, caring medical personnel spent over two hours digging pieces of asphalt from his face and body.
To this day, Jeff is still undergoing physical therapy treatments several times a week and, months later, he struggles with immense pain, as he works toward his goal of someday returning to full duty. Before we go any further in this statement, I’d like to take this time to thank the overwhelming outpouring of support our community has expressed toward Jeff – it has made a great deal of difference in his recovery efforts. So, thank you.
The driver of the car that struck Officer Williams is Byron Harris. Harris endangered the public by leading officers on a chase that exceeded 100 mph up and down I-95 and eventually along residential streets. Harris is a convicted felon with an extensive criminal history. No part of Harris’ conduct before or during this incident can reasonably leave one to believe that he had any inclination to comply with our officers’ efforts to take him into custody. In fact, in the post arrest interviews, the two occupants of the car Harris was driving shared that he expressed concern that he couldn’t stop because he had “just killed a cop.”
After Harris and the other two occupants of his vehicle were apprehended, we were contacted by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, who told us we might want to take a look at a video which was captured by their Aviation Unit during the pursuit and arrest. The video depicts two-dimensional heat signatures of the vehicles and persons on scene. This video is far from a complete representation of what transpired during this arrest.
Like all depictions of confrontation, this video is difficult to watch – and again, because we are watching two-dimensional heat signatures – we are left to draw a subjective conclusion with regard to critical details of what transpired during this arrest. The process of determining if our officers’ actions were justified lay in clearly distinguishing between what we know, what we can prove, and what we believe.
We know that our officers used force, and we know they reported this use of force before being made aware of the existence of this video account. But the question is: was the level of force reasonably objective based on the level of resistance they experienced, and the level of fear officers felt as they confronted these subjects who they believed had just killed one of their co-workers. This video provides no insight into those critical questions.
Harris endangered everyone’s lives – not just officers but the public as well – by driving the way he did to get away from the police when he thought he murdered a police officer.
Police officers are lawfully justified to use force as appropriate. These actions are authorized by Florida state statutes and duly constrained by the United States Constitution. As a command staff, we have a responsibility to do our due diligence to ensure that when circumstances dictate that our officers need to resort to violence in order to control a chaotic situation, our agency standards are followed. These standards require that the application of force is lawful, appropriate, just and reflective of the will of the community we serve.
We must also validate what was written in our officers’ incident reports with the video evidence presented to us days later. As a department, we don’t possess the technology or expertise to accomplish this objective. As a result, last September, we reached out to the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office and FBI and requested their assistance. That investigation is still ongoing, and it is our sincere hope that these agencies are able to help us decipher the encounter on the video.