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3 arrested in incident that led to police officers using pepper spray during Tampa protest

Posted at 4:44 PM, Jun 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-05 23:16:53-04

TAMPA, Fla. -- Three people were arrested after Thursday's incident that lead to police officers using pepper spray at a crowd of protesters in Tampa.

According to the Tampa Police Department, a group of protesters were marching through downtown Tampa, eventually turning east on East Scott Street and heading toward the I-4/I-275 ramp. Officers then tried to get ahead of the crowd in order to keep protesters from heading to the ramp.

According to a release sent out by TPD, 17-year-old Marli Church "attempted to strike officers" with the metal tip of her umbrella. On Friday, TPD shared a video of the incident on the department's YouTube channel.

Friends of Church and fellow protesters on the other hand, say she was not attempting to strike officers with her umbrella, and that the incident was unprovoked.

“Honestly just a complete obstruction of their authority. Three of them pinned her to the ground, maced her, were macing people that were getting close,” said Cody Sherman, one of the protest organizers.

Graphic cell phone videos from protesters at the scene showed police using pepper spray as they were working to place Church in custody. Protesters on scene could be heard pleading the police to "get off" Church, who is 17.

Chief Dugan addressed the moment in the video where several officers appear to be pinning Church to the ground and said, "If they had used that technique in Minneapolis, George Floyd would still be alive."

According to police, a second suspect -- later identified as 22-year-old Emadi Okwuosa -- used a bullhorn "to incite the group in an attempt to disrupt the flow of traffic on the interstate. TPD added in its release that a third suspect, 21-year-old Stephanie Sanchez, attempted to hit an officer on scene.

Church and Sanchez were charged with assault on a law enforcement officer and Okwuosa was charged with inciting to riot.

TPD also said in its press release that a subject in the crowd sprayed a fire extinguisher in the direction of the officers.

Thursday's incident came just hours after seven black elected leaders in Hillsborough County released a joint statement calling out Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Tampa police chief Brian Dugan after reports of "unprovoked use of force" from officers over the last several days.

The joint statement pointed out three incidents that caught the elected leaders' attention:

  • May 30 - TPD reportedly used rubber bullets and tear gas to get a "peaceful gathering of protesters" at Cyrus Greene Park to disperse
  • June 1 - TPD reportedly used force against an unarmed black man while on the grounds of Tampa General Hospital (not related to protests)
  • June 2- TPD reportedly used "dehumanizing tactics" to disperse crowds of peaceful protesters in downtown Tampa.

"Let us be clear: we strongly condemn the use of force or violence by law enforcement against any protester who peacefully exercises their right to the freedom of assembly and expression," the joint statement said in part. "We also condemn the use of force or violence by law enforcement against unarmed individuals whose only crime appears to be living while black."

Tampa Police Department also came under criticism in a letter from the ACLU Thursday, where the ACLU referenced an instance on Sunday, May 31, at the protest at Cyrus Greene Park:

"By all accounts, TPD ordered those gathered to disperse within three minutes, and protesters were in fact leaving the area and heading toward their cars. After only oneminute, police began firing rubber bullets and tear gas, unnecessarily creating a panicked and chaotic atmosphere that quickly infected the gathering, and some individuals present were injured. Please note that tear gas is banned under the Geneva Convention, yet TPD used a weapon deemed too vicious for enemy soldiers,on peaceful citizens who were protesting the unnecessary use of force by overzealous law enforcement.The irony is not lost on us."

Chief Dugan assured people that officers did not use tear gas or rubber bullets. He said the Tampa Police Department uses pepper spray and "less than lethal rounds." Dugan did not elaborate on what "less than lethal rounds" refers to.

Chief Dugan said in Friday's press conference that Tampa Police Department is looking into instances where they believe protesters may have used tear gas. He said TPD also has evidence that protesters have used smoke at some of the protests.

State Representative Dianne Hart said the Tampa Police Department needs to participate in implicit bias training. She also said the City of Tampa needs to get things back under control.

“To target an entire crowd because one or two people are doing something, you should target that one or two persons that are doing that. That’s not the way to quiet it, it’s the way to rile it up. So what I saw on that film, that I keep seeing on the film, is our police were worse than any protesters, as they were putting people down to the ground with all of this pepper spray. You’re following people, you’re shooting them from the back, and unfortunately the video shows that,” said Dianne Hart, (D) Tampa.

In a press conference Friday, Mayor Castor voiced her support for the peaceful protesters.

"These systemic issues that we're facing, the problems didn't happen overnight, and we're not going to fix them overnight. But it is going to take all of us, together, to ensure that they are addressed," said Castor.

Mayor Castor also unveiled the #8Can'tWait initiative, created by Campaign Zero, which outlines eight policies that can decrease police violence & improve the safety of all citizens. Mayor Castor said the city has already been using all eight of those strategies, starting before she was the police chief.

She said the City of Tampa is working with Campaign Zero to make sure Tampa is listed as using all eight of the techniques, because currently the city is only listed as using one.

Lorie Fridell, a professor of criminology at USF announced during the press conference that USF would be working with Tampa Police officers to give them their Fair and Impartial Policing training. That is set to begin in August.

RECOMMENDED: Elected officials call for transparency after TPD reportedly used force against unarmed black man near TGH

Nationwide and across the Tampa Bay area, protesters have taken to the streets for nearly a week in the wake of George Floyd's death.

Floyd's death caught the nation's attention after a viral video showed the 46-year-old Minnesota man struggling while in police custody back in late May. The video showed a white police officer, later identified as Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd's neck.

Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder before Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced on Wednesday that Chauvin's charge upgraded to a second-degree murder. He’s also being charged with manslaughter.

The three other officers involved in the deadly incident -- Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane -- are being charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder for their role in Floyd's death.

Thursday's protests largely appeared peaceful though. Hundreds gathered first at Curtis Hixon where they chanted, held signs and spoke out against police brutality, inequality.

"To bring justice to George Floyd to bring justice to all black lives and to bring peace to everybody," said 10-year old Gianna Washington.

"I think it’s great because we thought we fixed this years ago but it’s still happening today so we have to make sure we finish it this time correctly," said 9-year old Yulander Wells.

Protesters spent several hours marching throughout downtown sharing their message.

"It’s been years and years of the same stuff and I just feel like everybody’s tired of it. We have to come out we have to stand together and show them why we’re out here," said Anissa Fitz. "We’re out here because of injustices against black people and we’re tired of it and I appreciate everybody that’s out here it’s great energy."

In a powerful moment, they returned to Curtis Hixon where they all knelt, held up their fists and stayed silent for the amount of time George Floyd suffered.

Protests on Friday remained largely peaceful.

A group of more than 200 marched between the county courthouse and Curtis Hixon Park. KHALIL AL-MUTASIL

"Growing up as a black man, it’s much different than how you would grow up," said Khalil Al-Mutasil. "It’s tough everyday knowing that you might have to fight for your life just coming out here on the street."

Organizers reiterated several times that their march would remain calm and without chaos.

At one point, a few protesters stood in the middle of North Ashley Drive to block afternoon traffic but organizers quickly dispersed them.