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Plant City Observer Friday, Oct. 6, 2017 9 months ago

PCPD officers cleared in shooting death of unarmed man

Jesus Cervantes was unarmed and first shot from behind, but officers were cleared in his death.
by: Daniel Figueroa IV Staff Writer

Jesus Cervantes made a a frantic 911 call asking for police help. They shot him in the back.

New details have emerged in the July 6 shooting death of Cervantes following the completion of an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in August. The shooting has sparked outcry in Plant City over police accountability and transparency, as well as whether the shooting was justified.

September 6, two months to the day after Cervantes, a 35-year-old father of four, was shot dead by Plant City Police Department officers Gerald Baker and Derek Hartmann, State Attorney Andrew Warren wrote PCPD Chief Ed Duncan a letter stating the officers’ use of force was justified and no charges would be filed. Cervantes was holding a glass pipe and a black and white striped shirt with red sequins when he was killed.

“Based on our review and analysis of the relevant facts and law…the use of deadly force by Officer Derek Hartmann and Officer Gerald Baker was justified pursuant to Florida Statute 776.012,” the letter stated.

“We all want to live in safe communities and value a criminal justice system that embodies fairness and accountability,” Warren added in a statement to the Plant City Times and Observer.

“My office is dedicated to reviewing all law enforcement use of force matters thoroughly and transparently, and we will continue to engage in candid dialogue to reduce officer-involved shootings and promote trust within the community.”

The Florida law Warren references says the use of deadly force is justified if someone “reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”

According to the FDLE report, around 5 a.m. July 6, Cervantes called 911 saying he was being followed by “a lot of cars for two hours.” He sounded distressed and was breathing

Jesus Cervantes was shot multiple times by two officers on July 6 after he crashed his car following a call he made to police for help.

heavily. PCPD officers were able to locate and identify Cervantes’ black Nissan Altima and began a pursuit believing the caller was in distress and possibly kidnapped.

Along County Line Road, stop sticks deflated Cervantes’ front tires, but he kept driving, leading police across Coronet Road, eventually crashing in the grass outside of a BP gas station at 1908 E. Alsobrook St., where Alsobrook meets Park Road.

Hartmann, Baker and a number of other officers gave sworn eyewitness accounts of the events. Baker said he got out of his patrol car, taser in hand, and watched Cervantes get out of his crashed car, then grab something from the back seat. Baker said Cervantes turned toward him with “crazed eyes” and assumed a “shooter’s stance.” Baker called out “gun” and dropped his taser, reaching for his Glock 23 pistol.

At the same time, Hartmann, pistol drawn, said he was giving Cervantes commands to “Get on the ground. Show us your hands.” Cervantes’ back was towards Hartmann, but Hartmann told the FDLE he could see Cervantes’ shoulders and body in a two-handed “shooter’s stance. Fearing Cervantes was going to shoot Baker, Hartmann fired twice at Cervantes, striking him and Baker’s patrol car.

Baker, mistaking Hartmann’s shots for shots fired by Cervantes, fired as many as seven more shots, striking Cervantes twice in the shoulder and twice in the head.

According to the medical examiner report, one of Hartmann’s rounds struck Cervantes in the left inside forearm and “travelled down the arm and lodged near Cervantes’ left wrist,” which indicates a raised arm.

When the firing stopped “Officer Baker looked at Cervantes’ body on the ground and saw a glass pipe in his right hand and rolled up shirt in his left hand.”

Cervantes was pronounced dead at the scene.

Three other officers and one police sergeant who were on the scene also provided statements. One officer, Vincent Wise, said he would have fired on Cervantes as well, if he didn’t fear catching fellow officers in the crossfire.

On the morning of the incident, Cervantes’ wife, Teresa Barrios said she saw him shortly before the call to police was made. She told the FDLE he looked nervous and said he was being followed. She said she thought he was “high on ice,” a slang term for methamphetamine. A toxicology report found evidence of methamphetamine in Cervantes’ system.

PCPD officers don’t wear body cameras or use dash cameras in their vehicles. The only footage of the incident, the FDLE said, was from gas station cameras aimed at pumps that showed a portion of the incident in poor quality.

Since the shooting, Cervantes’ family has joined with local advocacy groups to demand reforms to the PCPD’s policing strategy. Members of the Restorative Justice Coalition, one such group, have been attending City Commission meetings requesting the implementation of a body camera program and civilian review board for PCPD, among other requests.

PCPD had previously experimented with body cameras to what PCPD representatives said was success. In one case, a PCPD officer was able to refute a bogus claim of excessive force because of body camera footage. In 2014, PCPD was awarded a justice department grant of almost $13,000 to purchase body camera equipment. However, Duncan took over shortly after and decided not to use the funds, telling the Department of Justice at the time “it is my opinion that the original grant request lacked adequate product research and failed to recognize the impact and long-term consequences that the proposed project would have had on the city.”

Since then, Duncan said he stands by his decision and has no plans to bring body cameras to the PCPD.

Members of the RJC said they plan to continue attending meetings demanding reforms to the police department and were upset with the State Attorney’s decision.

“We are grossly disappointed to see the police once again skirt above professional integrity, due diligence and the course of law,” members of the RJC wrote in a statement. “Despite the overwhelming inconsistencies in the FDLE report and the overall lack of an ethical response to mental illness demonstrated by PCPD, the State Attorney has turned a blind eye on the community they serve.”

Following the shooting, Baker and Hartmann were placed on paid administrative leave, per departmental policy. A request for the officers' personnel files was not able to be fulfilled before publication.

Daniel Figueroa IV is a Staff Writer at the Plant City Times & Observer. He has been covering Plant City since 2017. Previously, he was the politics and veteran affairs reporter at the Ledger of Lakeland. He probably wants to ride motorcycles and trade books with...

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