Prosecutor: LPD Shooting at Salem’s Was Justified

The actions of three Lakeland police officers who shot and killed 17-year-old Michael Taylor in a crowded restaurant parking lot on the morning of Dec. 26, 2018, were justified, according to an opinion released today by the State Attorney’s Office.

“Their actions are consistent with a reasonable belief that such force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to Officer (Markais) Neal or others,” Assistant State Attorney Paul Wallace wrote in a letter to Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia

Multiple Lakeland police officers had been on the scene when the incident happened, having been called to the Salem’s Gyros & Subs restaurant at the corner of Florida Avenue and Memorial Boulevard by the owners hoping to disperse the crowd that had gathered in the parking lot, Wallace wrote.

This is what happened that night, according to Wallace’s letter:

Officers at the scene identified a Chevrolet Camaro reported as stolen. After the fatal shooting, they identified Taylor as the driver.  

Seven officers approached the vehicle from each side, with Officer Markais Neal at the front of the car, according to the letter. When Officer Raj Patel ordered Taylor out of the car, the driver accelerated toward Neal. 

Neal began firing his weapon as he dodged out of the way. Patel and Officer Joseph Novis also opened fire. Together they fired 23 rounds into the car, striking the driver, Taylor, in his head, torso, right forearm, right hand, left shoulder, left forearm and his left wrist. The young woman in the passenger seat was not injured. 

The incident was captured on surveillance video.

Wallace had responded to the scene the night of the shooting and interviewed the three officers who fired their weapons, he wrote. He also interviewed the woman in the car with Taylor and two other officers who witnessed the shooting.

According to the police witnesses and the young woman in the car, Taylor had been clearly ordered out of the car before he hit the accelerator.

Wallace also determined that the Camaro Taylor was driving was in fact stolen as suspected by officers on the scene, as was a 9mm handgun from a separate theft found in the car.

About a third of the nine-page letter focused on Taylor’s history with law enforcement. He had been convicted or accused of several crimes in his short life, starting at age 12 when he was accused of petit theft in Winter Haven, and had spent more time in custody or on probation than not. He was serving probation at the time of his death, according to the letter. 

Though his history was unknown to officers at the time of the shooting, Wallace wrote that the review was included “in an effort to gain some understanding of why Michael Taylor would have refused to obey the clearly communicated commands of multiple uniformed police officers to exist the car.”

Taylor had been convicted of a 2016 theft of a car at gunpoint that led to a high-speed chase with Winter Haven police that reached speeds of 125 miles per hour, according to the letter. For that, he was sentenced to a high-risk facility for juvenile offenders.  

About 14 months later he was released and ordered to wear an electronic tracking device as part of his probation in April 2017. That requirement was removed by the sentencing judge that June, according to the letter. 

The next month Polk County Sheriff’s Office deputies found a stolen car reportedly involved in burglaries in Plant City, Winter Park and Zephyrhills where guns had been stolen. Taylor was arrested based on deputies identifying his fingerprints in the car and pleaded guilty to the new charges. 

He was then sentenced to 300 days in the Polk County Jail and five years of probation without electronic monitoring or a curfew. He was last released from jail May 7, 2018, and apparently had made his appointments with his probation officer up until Dec. 5. 

After his death, blood samples taken from Taylor were connected to DNA found on scene in a string of burglaries and another car theft. 

Wallace wrote that he believed Taylor tried to flee Dec. 26, 2018, because he knew he would be arrested “which could result in him being sentenced for a significant period of time in an adult prison.”

The day after Taylor’s death, protesters gathered on the sidewalk adjacent to the restaurant to demonstrate against the shooting. A month later, protesters marched behind an empty casket from Salem’s to LPD’s headquarters where they held a rally and press conference to protest Taylor’s death and the deaths of other young black men by police shootings.

Speakers criticized police for heavy-handed tactics and escalation. Along the route, protesters laid nooses to represent historical and ongoing oppression of black people in America.

Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia said the State Attorney’s Office findings are in line with the criminal investigation completed by his department weeks after the shooting. The department will also complete an administrative review of the incident. 

“There were no indications (the shooting) wasn’t (done out of) fear or peril,” Garcia said, meaning the officers’ actions were justified. “It doesn’t make it any less tragic. We lost a 17-year-old young man’s life, but it certainly is probably settling for the officers to know their actions have been deemed justified.” 

Garcia said he had no concerns about how the attempted stop was handled tactically. 

“It was certainly a tough situation the officers found themselves in,” he said, “with a crowded parking lot and a vehicle trying to kill them. … They were in a very tough situation from the start. They adapted and improvised as best they could.”

Garcia said the death shows how “we’ve got to continue to work to see how we can prevent this from occurring, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean we as a society as a whole. … I wish some system could have helped him when he was 12, 13 years old.”

Wallace’s letter to Chief Garcia:

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