By Linda Trischitta Sun Sentinel
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — A police officer will not be investigated for punching a teenage girl while subduing her at Coral Square Mall, an episode that attracted national attention when a cellphone video went viral.
“No policy was violated,” Coral Springs Police Officer Tyler Reik said Monday. “The officers went through what they are trained to do and to de-escalate the situation. We try verbal compliance first, and obviously that wasn’t working.”
The police response, including putting the girl on the ground and punching her so she would release her arms to be handcuffed, has drawn outrage from the Broward public defender’s office and the girl’s mother.
“What he did was not justified at all,” Jessica Dennis told Good Morning America about her daughter, 14. “He totally was wrong. He totally went overboard, because she wasn’t resisting.”
Police said Monday that Dennis had not filed a complaint with them.
Command staff reviewed officers’ reports, statements from other officers at the mall and the cellphone video when deciding not to discipline the officer who punched the child, a spokesman said.
Broward Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes said the police department’s internal affairs investigators should review the case, which he said involved excessive force.
“I think the officers involved should be put on leave until the internal affairs investigation is completed,” said Weekes, who oversees juvenile cases but is not representing Dennis’ daughter.
“And it needs to be transparent so that the child, the community and stakeholders can understand what happened and rest assured that law enforcement officers are not using a heavy-handed approach when interacting with people in the community,” he said.
On Thursday afternoon, mall security called police because about 30 teenagers in several groups were fighting, cursing and harassing customers, according to an arrest report. The kids were given verbal warnings about trespassing and escorted out of the mall.
While officers dealt with another incident at the shopping center, at 9469 W. Atlantic Blvd., security called them again because some of the teenagers had returned, including the girl in the video.
As police again escorted the group to an exit, the girl “began causing a scene, cursing at security in the presence of officers while attempting to incite the other juveniles,” Officer Nicole Hildebrandt wrote in her report.
The girl refused to leave mall property, give her name or comply with officers’ commands. When Hildebrandt grabbed her left arm, she pulled away, the report said.
Officers put the girl down on the grass, and she refused to submit to being handcuffed.
With his fist, Officer Paul James struck the girl in the right side of her rib cage, ordering her to put her hands behind her back. After the third punch, she complied, he wrote in his report.
While in a patrol car, the girl kicked Hildebrandt in the stomach, reports said.
James wrote in his report that that girl never complained of any injury or pain; Hildebrandt did not get medical treatment, Reik, the spokesman, said.
The girl faces three charges: battery on a law enforcement officer, obstructing an officer without violence and trespassing after a warning.
Police have banned her from the mall for a year.
— Coral Springs Police (@CoralSpringsPD) October 19, 2018
Attorney Meeghan Moldof represents the teenager and said she did not have a criminal record.
“She’s a sweet girl,” Moldof said. “This could be anyone’s child. She’s never been in trouble before.”
She declined to comment about whether the child received medical care after her arrest. The girl was placed on home detention for three weeks.
Moldof also said, in her opinion, that excessive force was used during the arrest.
“At the moment the video is rolling, they have complete control of the situation,” Moldof said. “He’s a trained police officer to deal with situations like this. He could have done a number of other things.”
Reik said of the police response: “We want to avoid injuries. Once we put hands on a suspect, we try not to disengage for the safety of our officers and the suspect’s safety, if things escalate.”
Though the images of a grown man punching a teenage girl in the ribs is jarring, Reik said such violence is allowed.
“Nothing in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement use-of-force matrix says you cannot strike a subject to gain compliance if other methods are attempted,” Reik said. “Our command staff supports our officers. If she didn’t come back to the mall a second time, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Weekes, the assistant public defender, said: “Just because it’s permissible doesn’t make it right. Is it appropriate for a grown man to punch her that way? It’s a pain compliance maneuver and not appropriate to use on a 14-year-old kid.”
He said the case illustrates the need for officers to wear body cameras. Coral Springs’ officers don’t use them.
The mall doesn’t have surveillance cameras, and investigators on Monday were canvassing individual stores to see what footage they may be able to produce, police said.