A Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputy remains on leave after choking a Black teenager in jail and sending him to the hospital.
Surveillance footage provided to Florida Politics through the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office shows Deputy Neil Pizzo putting his hands around the neck of 17-year-old Terrence Reed at inmate intake and bringing him to the ground.
While Pizzo in a written statement said the action came because he sensed Reed was about to attack him, Sheriff Tom Knight said that when he watched video of the incident, Pizzo appeared to violate policy.
“We slowed the frames down and looked at it and I said, ‘We’ve got a problem,’” Knight said. “It appears we have a violation of policy, and we relieved him of his ability to go to work.”
Official reports showed the incident occurred Tuesday when Reed was being booked into a juvenile facility. Records show he was arrested on charges of possession and sale of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a church or school and on violating probation and contempt of court charges stemming from prior arrests for burglary and unlawfully carrying a concealed weapon.
The video shows Reed sitting on a bench in intake, moving his arms beneath a red T-shirt. Pizzo can be seen on one side pointing at Reed at he speaks from across the room. Then Pizzo approaches Reed, who stands up from the bench. At that point, Pizzo puts his gloved hands around Reed’s neck and pushes him against the wall.
The teenager begins to struggle and reach back, at one point grabbing Pizzo’s right forearm and putting his arm on Pizzo’s shoulder. Pizzo pulls on the inmate’s shirt, then tosses him to the ground in the corner on the opposite side of the room. Pizzo climbs on top of Reed while he is turned to the ground as another deputy, Earl Matthews, comes over and grabs Reed by his legs and restrains him.
Pizzo appears to bind Reed’s hands behind the back, then, using his gloved hand, Pizzo slaps Reed at least three times before he is handcuffed. Three more deputies are shown arriving at the incident. About a minute and 40 seconds after the incident began, Reed is walked out of the room and into a holding cell.
Reports show Reed was later taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital and treated for abrasions to the head.
Pizzo provided his own account in writing of the incident in which he said Reed threatened him.
The deputy was checking another inmate into the facility at the same time Matthews was booking Reed. Both Matthews and Pizzo said Reed was not listening to officers, who asked him to keep his hands out of his pockets while waiting for a picture to be taken.
According to Pizzo, Reed refused that direction and said he was cold, then said “I’ll kill you Cracker if we on the streets, Ill blow your f***ing head off, you ain’t a real cop.”
Matthews’ account quotes Reed similarly, though with slightly different wording.
Pizzo said the expletives continued when Reed moved to the bench and put his hands in his shirt. It was after Reed said “f*** you, I’m code, I’m not going to do it cracker, I’d blow your top off” that Pizzo said he physically approached the teenager.
“I saw the look in his eyes and the stance that he immediately went into. Mr. Reed had his fists clenched and it was eminent I was going to be attacked and struck,” Pizzo writes. “I immediately stepped back from the potential strike and was able to close the distance between us. I was forced to step in and defend myself and the other persons within the room. I applied a right hand strike to the subject face area.”
No sound is recorded on jail videos to confirm or refute any of the statements made. But Reed is standing for only a second and not in a charging posture when Pizzo first grabs him. Footage provided by the jail shows the incident from two angles.
Knight said he immediately saw problems in how the events transpired when he watched the footage on Thursday and felt the same after seeing it in slow motion.
The Sheriff, who is retiring after his term of office wraps up this year, said the policy for his agency is “de-escalation.” Knight said only Pizzo is the subject of an internal investigation, and no other deputies involved in the incident appeared to potentially violate policy or the law.
The Sheriff won’t say what punishment ultimately will be delivered to the deputy. An Internal Affairs investigation of Pizzo has begun.
“It should take no more than three weeks, and my push will be to have it done in two,” Knight said.
Any decision on punishment will be based on witness accounts of the incident. Knight said Pizzo’s candor in the investigation will also be taken into account.
“Truth matters to me in Internal Affairs, and whether those involved accept their actions,” Knight said. “Cops are human, but being forthright, honest and truthful matters.”
An investigation may also shed light on what provoked the situation, but watching the video, Knight said he only saw the inmate speaking. What he said ultimately means little, according to the Sheriff.
“At the end of the day the First Amendment stands, and it doesn’t matter what people say,” Knight said. “Words never hurt anybody. I have seen the video, and I don’t care what the young man said. That’s not how we operate.”
Beyond discipline from the Sheriff’s Office, there remains a question of whether the deputy should face criminal charges.
“Everything is on the table,” Knight said.
If warranted, the Sheriff’s Office has the ability to arrest and send charges to the State Attorney for consideration.
Depending on how the event transpires, the incident could have political repercussions.
It happened during a period of strained relationships between law enforcement nationwide and the Black community. There’s also a race to choose Knight’s successor as Sheriff and a contested State Attorney’s race on the ballot this year, raising the potential the incident could become part of those community debates.
A few months ago, an incident in the City of Sarasota prompted an internal investigation there, but the use of force was ultimately deemed not to be improper.