The time for waiting is over. The time for action is now.

Nicolas Morales’s brother speaks to over 100 friends, family members, and supporters from Immokalee, Naples, and Ft. Myers at a vigil held in Immokalee earlier this year.

Nearly a year has passed without justice for Nicolas Morales, gunned down by Collier County Sheriff’s deputy who remains on the job, and in our streets, today…

Leaving bad police on the streets begets more police violence. Accountability for past violence isn’t just the right thing to do for those already victimized by police brutality, it prevents future abuse, too.

Call to Action: Join us on September 17th at 3pm at the Collier County Sheriff’s Office in Naples to deliver a petition demanding justice for Nicolas and an end to police brutality for all of Collier County!

This September 17th — just three weeks from today — will mark one year since Nicolas Morales was shot to death at close range by Cpl. Pierre Jean of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) and mauled by a police K-9 as he lay dying, alone and calling out for his mother, in the quiet streets of Immokalee’s Farmworker Village neighborhood.  As a result of two woefully inadequate investigations by both the State Attorney’s office and the CCSO’s own Professional Responsibility Bureau, Cpl. Jean and the two other Sheriff’s deputies on the scene with him that night remain on the job — and in the streets of Collier County — today.  The officers suffered no official consequences for killing a man in the throes of a mental health crisis whom they just as easily could have helped. The consequences of their actions, on the other hand, cannot be undone, leaving a 13-year old boy forever orphaned and a heartbroken community outraged and demanding justice.

The image is a still from the police dashcam video showing the moment when Cpl. Pierre Jean (center) shoots Nicolas Morales four times at short range, just before his partner to his left releases his police K-9 (a less lethal alternative) and while his partner to his right holsters his gun to prepare for a physical confrontation.

For the past year, the community’s demands for justice and common-sense police reforms have been ignored, while the need for change has grown only more urgent, and the community’s commitment to seeing their demands become policy has only deepened.  It has become increasingly clear that what happened to Nicolas that morning in Farmworker Village was anything but an isolated incident, but rather part of a larger pattern of unchecked police abuse both here in Collier County and in the nation as a whole.  And, more than that, what happened after Nicolas’s unconscionable killing was likewise part of a larger pattern, where police who commit violence on the job, from the use of excessive force all the way up to killing those they are sworn to protect, are rarely held accountable for their actions and, in all too many cases, return to the streets only to commit more violence, and even kill, again. 

It is with this urgency — born not just of the community’s anger over Nicolas’s brutal and unnecessary death but also of the imperative to prevent police violence in our streets tomorrow and in the years to come — that we are launching a call to action. On September 17, to mark the one-year anniversary of his death, friends and family of Nicolas Morales and supporters, including religious and community leaders from Immokalee and across Southwest Florida, will hold a peaceful vigil at the Collier County Sherriff’s office in Naples and deliver a petition calling for justice for Nicolas and long-overdue police reforms for Immokalee and the rest of Collier County.  

While our protest on September 17th will be in Nicolas’s name, our voices join a growing chorus calling for an end to police brutality and an official commitment to the structural reforms that are urgently needed across the country.  Because, sadly, we are far from alone.

From Kenosha to Immokalee, a year of abuse without accountability…

This past Monday, August 23rd, the community of Kenosha, Wisconsin, also marked the one year anniversary of the police shooting that left Jacob Blake paralyzed from the waist down and sparked several nights of protest demanding justice for Blake and a series of critical police reforms for the community as a whole (the protests also prompted a spasm of deadly violence by heavily armed, vigilante “militia” members, who mobilized to counter the police reform protesters, resulting in the deaths of two protesters).  In a story on Kenosha’s unhappy anniversary, Wisconsin ABC affiliate WISN reported that members of the Kenosha community had organized several events this week to mark the year since Jacob Blake’s shooting, including a prayer walk and a rally “to continue to call for social change,” while noting that the officer who shot Blake, Officer Rusten Sheskey, had been “cleared of wrongdoing by investigators and has returned to work.”  The Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, Mandela Barnes (pictured below), issued a statement this week highlighting the lack of any satisfactory resolution to the conflict in Kenosha, as well as the community’s ongoing demand for substantive police reforms.  It reads, in part:

Lt. Gov. Barnes

“On Aug. 23, 2020, Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times in front of his children in Kenosha. Today – 1 year later – we are still living in a world where a deadly pandemic continues to spread and where systemic racism continues to ravage communities of color. My heart and thoughts go to Jacob Blake and his family and friends, as he continues to recover while paralyzed from the waist down. They also go to Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosembaum – two lives cruelly taken too soon by a gunman while they marched to demand Justice for Jacob. We have seen communities – especially Kenosha – step up to demand action from those in power and work to bring about positive change on the local level. And just a few weeks ago, I was honored to speak with an amazing group of Kenosha youth, where I saw firsthand how our next generation is committed to justice in ways we haven’t seen before,” he wrote on Twitter.

“However, 1 year later, Jacob Blake requires around-the-clock nursing care. The police offer who shot him seven times has returned to work. We’ve taken steps to increase policing accountability and transparency but have yet to see the systemic reform we need and are advocating for. As we reckon with the shooting of Jacob and the injury and death of far too many Black and Brown people, we must know that a better world is always worth fighting for – that we don’t need to live in a world stained by white supremacy and systemic racism every day. Especially as we navigate a new surge in the pandemic, we cannot settle to return to what many know as normal – but rather must pledge to continue to push forward on a path that ensures our state and our country live up to our promises of equity and justice.” (read more)

A pattern of excessive force unpunished…

The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha and the killing of Nicolas Morales in Immokalee have much in common.  The two shootings took place just a few weeks apart toward the end of last summer.  Both sparked community calls for long-overdue police reforms.  And in both cases, the officers involved were exonerated by investigators and able to return to work without the slightest consequence for their actions, with the Florida State Attorney deeming Nicolas’s killing “legally justifiable” and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office’s Professional Responsibility Bureau concluding that the officer’s use of deadly force was “lawful, reasonable, and within policy.”  In both cases, after firing their service weapons multiple times at close range into a fellow human being — killing that human being in one case, paralyzing the other for life — when any number of less-lethal courses of action remained available to them, the two officers were free to return to their jobs, the memory of pulling the trigger and watching a man fall still fresh in their minds.  

Death without consequence.  Injury without remedy.  Crime without punishment.

Unfortunately, impunity — defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action” — for violent police actions is hardly limited to Kenosha and Immokalee.  Indeed, it is much more the rule than the exception when excessive force is used by police in this country.  In the words of the statistical analysis website 

“A review of the data we have on police prosecutions shows that it’s uncommon for police officers to face any kind of legal consequences — let alone be convicted — for committing fatal violence against civilians.”

And, all too often, that very impunity has its own consequences, in the form of new victims of police violence at the hands of repeat offenders who went unpunished the first, second, or even third time.  And so police violence, unchecked, begets more police violence, making holding police who commit violence accountable for their actions an essential — indeed urgent — strategy for ending the scourge of police brutality in this country.

Derek Chauvin: Justice delayed is justice denied… 

On Wednesday, April 21 of this year, former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on three charges — second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — for the brutal killing of George Floyd.  The significance of his conviction and sentencing cannot be overstated. 

Derek Chauvin reacts to the crowd pleading with him to allow George Floyd (not shown here) to breathe during the 9 and 1/2 minutes that Chauvin slowly tortured and asphyxiated Floyd to death.

But what often goes overlooked in this landmark decision is the fact that if justice had been done for Chauvin’s previous victims of violence years before that fateful day that George Floyd crossed paths with his murderer in the streets of Minneapolis, Floyd would almost certainly be alive today.  Because while it was Chauvin’s knee that killed his last victim on May 25, 2020, it was his seemingly bullet-proof impunity as an American police officer — the near-total lack of accountability built into our justice system for violent police — that even made it possible for him to be present that day when George Floyd stopped to buy cigarettes.

In a report from the Brookings Institute on police brutality, titled “How Can We Enhance Police Accountability in the United States?,” Chauvin’s history of brutality is placed in a broader context:

Why are bad-acting cops allowed to stick around?

Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd, has been involved in at least 18 police misconduct cases. He’s been involved in police shootings, and he’s been involved in cases that most people consider to be police brutality. What’s important is that this is a pattern. The officers who killed Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014, and who killed Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh in 2018—both Black teenagers—were dismissed from previous jobs as police officers. When an officer is dismissed, typically the Fraternal Order of Police has helped them resign quietly instead of being fired. This gives bad officers the ability to work for another department. This needs to change.

Another report on Chauvin’s violent history, titled “The people Derek Chauvin choked before George Floyd” by Minnesota Public Radio, goes still deeper into the psyche of an officer they describe as, “quick to use force and callous about [his victims’] pain”:

Nearly three years before the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd as he cried that he couldn’t breathe last May, Zoya Code found herself in a similar position: handcuffed facedown on the ground, with Chauvin’s knee on her.

The officer had answered a call of a domestic dispute at her home, and Code said he forced her down when she tried to pull away.

“He just stayed on my neck,” Code said, ignoring her desperate pleas to get off. Frustrated and upset, she challenged him to press harder. “Then he did. Just to shut me up,” she said.

Last week, a judge in Minnesota ruled that prosecutors could present the details of her 2017 arrest in their case against the former officer, who was charged with second-degree unintentional murder in Floyd’s death.

Code’s case was one of six arrests as far back as 2015 that the Minnesota attorney general’s office sought to introduce, arguing that they showed how Chauvin was using excessive force when he restrained people by their necks or by kneeling on top of them — just as he did in arresting Floyd. Police records show that Chauvin was never formally reprimanded for any of these incidents, even though at least two of those arrested said they had filed formal complaints.

Of the six people arrested, two were Black, one was Latino and one was Native American. The race of two others was not included in the arrest reports that reporters examined.

Discussing the encounters publicly for the first time in interviews with The Marshall Project, three people who were arrested by Chauvin and a witness in a fourth incident described him as an unusually rough officer who was quick to use force and callous about their pain.

As sick as he was, however, Chauvin was hardly alone as a police officer whose violent acts against defenseless victims have gone without reprimand or consequence, allowing those violent officers to remain on the streets and, in all too many cases, the number of their victims to rise unchecked over time. 

Florida’s own problems with accountability for violent police documented…

An investigative report published by the USA Today Network in June of last year, titled “Analysis: Most Florida officers disciplined for excessive force kept their jobs,” took a detailed look at the issue of impunity for Florida’s violent cops and concluded:

Most Florida law enforcement and corrections officers who were disciplined for using excessive force on suspects and inmates kept their jobs, according to a USA TODAY Network – Florida analysis of the state’s law enforcement complaint data.

The report provided several examples of cases of police killings in which the officer remained in his position even after an initial investigation found the officer to be at fault:

Deadly encounters

Former Jacksonville Police Officer Jeffrey Edwards

The 1,671 cases identified by USA TODAY Network – Florida include encounters where officers assaulted motorists after traffic stops, injured young people at youth shelters and in juvenile detention centers, and punched, kicked and used stun guns on handcuffed inmates, according to media reports.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office had 72 cases of officers being disciplined for excessive force, more than any other law enforcement agency in Florida since 1985, according to the analysis. Only the Florida Department of Corrections regions 1 and 2 had more cases. 

One of those Jacksonville cases involved a white officer shooting and killing an unarmed black man in May 2012.

In that case, Jacksonville Police Officer Jeffrey Edwards [right] shot and killed Davinian Williams after Williams refused orders to put his hands on his steering wheel and instead was reaching under his seat, according to news reports from the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

Then-Sheriff John Rutherford fired Edwards, saying he had other options than to shoot Williams, including retreating to his patrol car and waiting for backup. But an arbitrator ruled in Edwards’ favor, ordering him reinstated to the force with back pay, the newspaper reported…

… In July 2019, Pensacola Police Detective Daniel Siemen shot and killed an unarmed black man, Tymar Crawford, who they had seen tossing drugs from the window of his car before a traffic stop, the Pensacola News Journal reported.

Crawford struggled with officers after the traffic stop, and Siemen shot him seven times after Crawford grabbed another officer’s Taser, according to the newspaper.

Siemen was fired in October for violating the department’s deadly force, use of force and use of physical force policies. An Escambia County Grand Jury declined to indict him.

Meanwhile, closer to home here in Collier County, a review of the public record over the past decade reveals a surfeit of troubling cases of police violence without apparent consequences.  Here are just a few of the headlines:

One particularly disturbing example comes from local CBS affiliate WINK News, whose report documents an assault by an officer that was captured on video by the victim himself.  It was in fact the second time the officer had assaulted and arrested this particular victim, and in both cases, the charges against the victim were ultimately dropped by the State’s Attorney:

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the story of this repeat offender is the CCSO’s official comment to the WINK reporter.  According to CCSO, what Sergeant Wingo did in the video above “was within their policy and within the law.” Again, as was the case with Chauvin and with countless other police officers across the country with records of repeated brutality, Sergeant Wingo was not disciplined and remained an officer in Collier County.  Failing to hold a police officer accountable for violence the first time all too often leads to still more cases of violence from the same officer down the line.  

Violence, when met with impunity, begets more violence.  

And, of course, the very latest, and in many ways most appalling, case of police violence without accountability in Collier County took place in Immokalee on September 17th of last year.  

Call to Action!

Our review of past allegations of excessive force in Collier County available through the public record makes it painfully clear that Nicolas’s death was not an isolated incident.  It was not the result of one “bad apple.”  Rather, it was just the latest, and most brutal, incident in a long history of police brutality on the part of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office that has gone unchecked for far too long.  

And yet, if anything, the official record grossly understates the actual rate and toll of police violence in our county.  As almost anyone who has lived or worked in Immokalee knows all too well, the official reports available through the public record surely represent only the very tip of the iceberg compared to the actual number of incidents of abuse happening in the streets, with far more brutality and humiliation at the hands of the police never reported, far more complaints never filed, than those few that make the official record.  To deny that simple fact is folly, as anyone from Immokalee can point to multiple friends and family, if not themselves, who have experienced, and endured without complaint, abuse at the hands of the police, for fear of retaliation, lack of witnesses, language and cultural issues, or simply the fact that anywhere between 10-20,000 people living in Immokalee during the harvest season are migrant workers, and so move on before any complaint could ever realistically be processed.  The true history of police brutality in Collier County is far worse than the official record will ever reflect. 

And any serious analysis of the history of police violence in the country as a whole leaves no room for doubt: When officers who commit acts of police brutality are not held accountable for their actions and are left on duty and in the streets, the chances of continued violence only increase.  If the past tells us anything, it is that unchecked police violence only leads to more violence in the future.

Our patience is not infinite.  After all too many years of silence, the time to act is now.

Join us this September 17th at 3 p.m. at the Collier County Sheriff’s Office (meeting at Airport Pulling Rd. and US 41 in Naples) to mark one year since the brutal killing of Nicolas Morales, to deliver a petition demanding justice for Nicolas and urgent police reforms for all of Collier County to Sheriff Kevin Rambosk, and to demand a new and more humane future of policing in Collier County.

P.S., are you a member of the faith community? You’re invited to sign on to this letter of support from faith leaders that will be sent to Sherriff Rambosk. Read and sign here.