‘I can’t even breathe’: Body camera footage shows Orlando officer with knee on man’s neck following traffic stop

Video: Body camera footage shows Orlando officer with knee on man's neck following traffic stop

ORLANDO, Fla. — A traffic stop for an alleged seat belt violation led to chaos and an Orlando police officer's knee on a man's neck.

Two officers assigned to an elite special enforcement division were on what they called "proactive patrol" when they initiated the stop as Janet Feliciano pulled into her driveway on West South Street in the city's Parramore neighborhood.

The special enforcement division normally focuses on violent crimes and offenders.

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Watch: Orlando police chief discusses video of officer's knee on man's neck

9 Investigates reporter Daralene Jones initially found out about the July 2019 incident after she received cellphone video showing part of it and reached out to Orlando police with questions about what led up to the incident. In the video, you can hear the man on the ground in front of his home yelling, "Can you get off my neck? I can't breathe! I got asthma."

In body camera video of the incident, Orlando police Officer John Earle is seen using his knee to hold down the man’s neck as he’s being placed in handcuffs.

The man said he had been trying to protect his sister who was one month pregnant. He said police had snatched her from the doorway of their home, dragged and slammed her to the ground. She was then handcuffed.

In the video, Officer Luke Austin screams, "Put your hands behind your back, right now!" From another angle, the officer maintains the hold on the man, at one point shifting his leg to the man's upper-shoulder area after the man is in handcuffs.

It's part of the body that should be avoided, according to a department use-of-force diagram. And avoidance of the neck area is repeated throughout the agency's use-of-force policy unless an officer is in a deadly force situation. Earle can be heard on the body camera video saying, "My weight's not even on you, dude. Relax."

Watch: Body-cam video shows Orlando police officer's knee on man's neck

Janet Feliciano said she remembers the day well, though there's no mention of the violent takedown of her daughter or knee restraint used on her son in the responding officer's reports.

“All I see is (them) putting their knee on my son’s neck, body. And I’m telling them, ‘My son, he can’t breathe,” Feliciano told Jones.

Orlando police Chief Orlando Rolon defended and provided explanations for the officers' actions when he invited Jones to police headquarters to review body camera videos after we sent his office the cellphone video.

Weeks earlier when asked directly by a Channel 9 reporter about whether his officers used neck restraints, the chief said his officers are not trained to use neck restraints. The chief criticized the now-former Minneapolis officer who held his knee on George Floyd's neck, killing him.

Jones asked Rolon for the police report and why Earle would initially have had his knee on the man's neck.

Rolon said: “Any situation that arises where an officer has a choice, obviously we don’t want to see an officer’s knee on someone’s neck. If the situation comes up where through the utilization of techniques that we choose to control an arm, come down, move the arm over, so that the handcuffs can be placed and you have multiple officers helping out with the process and part of the leg is on the shoulder to control an individual who may be rocking back and forth or trying to get up, that we agree should always be in place. But we also have to have an opportunity to tell our officers that your mind may be on something else, and although your intent is to put pressure on the shoulder blade, you don’t want your leg to transition over to the neck area, especially if that transition is putting weight on to the individual’s neck that we don’t want.”

As Jones watched the video with Rolon, he further explained what he believes he's seeing. "He's being held to the ground," Rolon said. "He's also able to communicate the entire time. The way the officer is holding him is not going to restrict his ability to speak, not going to restrict his ability to voice his concerns about the situation, so keep that in mind."

The encounter was sparked by a traffic stop. Police said Feliciano's passenger, an unidentified man, hadn't been wearing his seat belt when they pulled over the car in Feliciano's driveway. Police said the passenger ignored commands to stop walking into the house. Officer William Jimenez walks up to the front porch and asks Feliciano to ask the passenger to come out of the house. She agrees to do that. Moments later, Jimenez threatens to arrest the unknown man for resisting arrest but still hasn't explained what crime has been committed. A seat belt violation is a civil infraction. As Feliciano is walking toward her front door, Jimenez said, "I'm about to kick the door in if he doesn't come outside."

Feliciano described during an interview with 9 Investigates what happened from her perspective. "My son opens up the door, and once he opens up the door, the officer puts his foot at the door," Feliciano said. "By then, my son is already in the house and the officer is trying to make his way inside my house, and my son is telling him, 'No, wait. I will get him.' So I'm yelling for the boy (unknown passenger) to come out the house. They put the cuffs on him, but at no point do they say why they're putting the cuffs on him. But at no point do they say why they wanted him."

She goes on to state: "This is something you guys are used to doing in this area to other people and other people allow it. They don't come forward, report it, so it goes unknown as to the excessive force that's being done."

Feliciano's adult children pushed back, trying to prevent the officer from coming inside without a warrant. As the officer tries to hold the door open, his foot gets caught in the frame, and Feliciano tries to help him get it out, though the struggle to keep Jimenez out of the doorway continues. And Feliciano's son's finger was also hurt in the struggle, getting caught in the doorway.

The chief told Channel 9 the officers had probable cause at that point because one of the officers said he could smell marijuana coming from the home, but it's not mentioned during the struggle.

The internal affairs director told Jones that's not something officers would mention because it would give those inside time to destroy potential evidence.

And here's how the chief described what's happening in the video during that struggle in the doorway when Jones asked if he believes the officers could go inside without a warrant.

"The officers were not trying to get into the home," Rolon said. "They were trying to secure the home. Unfortunately when you have a situation where, say, it's suspected potential that there's a drug in the home, you have to secure the premises, meaning you have to control what's going on.

“The reason they were trying to shut the door was trying to prevent the officers from having access to the inside, but the officer didn’t want to go inside. They just wanted to maintain control. They didn’t know who was inside of the residence at that time. They wanted to make sure that if anyone was in there, now that they had probable cause to potentially even go in and do an initial assessment of what was going on in the residence, their intent was not to go in at that moment.”

Attorney Howard Marks represents the family and believes the officer violated their Fourth Amendment rights.

“It is unimaginable that you pull a car over in their own driveway for a seat belt offense you cannot be arrested for,” Marks said. “It’s a civil infraction, and from there, you wind up going into people’s home, pulling people out, throwing people on the ground, putting knees on people’s neck. There is nothing that the officers did correctly here, and I cannot imagine that the Orlando Police Department would condone this type of activity. But apparently, they do over and over and over again.”

“No use of force?” Marks questioned. “How can an officer throw someone to the ground? Person has injuries, put their knee on their neck, yelling that they can’t breathe and no investigation.”

Marks told Channel 9 his client filed a complaint with Orlando police internal affairs, but Rolon said it went nowhere because the family didn't cooperate. But Marks said Feliciano sent video and provided witness statements the day after the incident last July. Feliciano admits an officer followed up with her, and later she was asked to come to internal affairs for interviews and she simply didn't feel comfortable after what happened to her family.

That passenger was never cited for a seat belt violation. No one was charged with marijuana possession. Feliciano's children were arrested for battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest with violence, but the assistant state attorney who refused to prosecute the case and dropped the charges sent a notice to Orlando police legal, describing the officers as overzealous with no legal basis to hold the door open. Still, there's been no investigation. And Rolon told us his administration hadn't even reviewed the body camera videos until we brought the cellphone video to their attention 12 days before this story aired.

Jones asked the chief what he would say to the community questioning whether this is an example of low income or Black people being targeted by police for minor offenses only to escalate them to major crimes.

“It is a valid concern if you see the disparity of vehicle stops in one segment of the community versus others,” the chief said. “I think this is one scenario that allows us to reflect on that. That allows us to look at ourselves and say, ‘Hey, to what extent do we want to exercise vehicle stops for seat belt violations in the city as a whole?’ So, our biggest takeaway is not only the vehicle stop, what reason they had to do the vehicle stop.”

Rolon reiterated during the interview that he saw no policy violations but rather an opportunity to use this video to provide better training for officers....

The Chief re-iterated during our interview he saw no policy violations, but rather an opportunity to use this video to provide better training for officers. The officer who put his knee on the man’s neck has been disciplined before for turning off his body camera, twice, and has several supervisory referrals in his 6 years with the department. In one case he pursued a vehicle that had been parked across three parking spots, tased the driver after he caught up with him and turned off his body camera more than once after he was in handcuffs. He was Officer of the year in 2017.

Video: Orlando police officers sound off in survey about their chief, department

RESPONDING OFFICERS

The officer seen with his knee on a man’s neck was not disciplined for this incident. Officer John Earle has been with the Orlando Police department for 6 years, previously serving in the military as a military police officer, according to his personnel file released to 9-Investigates.

Body camera video shows Officer Earle jumps out of his patrol car before his partner even stops, immediately helping Officer William Jimenez tackle a man to the ground, who was trying to stop officers from coming into his home without a warrant to search for an alleged seatbelt violator. Earle is assigned to the special enforcement division - which typically goes after violent offenders.

The neck area, according to this OPD use of force diagram should be avoided, unless an officer’s life is in danger. During a City Council meeting on Monday, Chief Rolon told council that the department would ban chock holds and look to review how traffic stops are handled, just hours before our investigation was scheduled to air. However, when investigative reporter Daralene Jones sat down with Chief Rolon he provided this explanation about what we see Officer Earle doing in this video. “The way the officer is holding him is not going to restrict his ability to speak, not going to restrict his ability to voice his concerns about the situation, so keep that in mind,” Chief Rolon told Jones.

9-Investigates has reported on Earle’s behavior before, sustained for violating policies in 8 different policy investigations, discipline ranged from reprimands to suspension. In 2017 he was named Employee of the Year because he arrested so many people. At the same time - he was under investigation - later receiving an oral reprimand for initiating a pursuit for a driver who was parked across three parking spots. Earle turned his body camera on and off, after tasing the man who was later arrested, according to the internal investigation.

His camera was off again in March 2019 when a woman was pepper sprayed, while sitting in a car. He was reprimanded because he didn’t file a use of force report filed. Earle was assigned to the special enforcement division in July when this incident happened, in Parramore where Earle held a knee to the man’s neck did not warrant a formal investigation, because the officer didn’t intend to keep his knee here, calling it a teachable moment. “Although the tactics were within keeping with our policies, we also have an opportunity to mention to our officers that we have different techniques when it comes to takedown, maintaining control,” Chief Rolon told Jones.

In a statement, Orlando Police said this, when we asked about why Officer Earle, considering his history would be assigned to the special enforcement division. “Officer Earle was assigned to SED when the July incident occurred. He was in good standing and had no disciplinary cases open at the time of his selection for SED. Officer Earle was chosen for SED due to his pro-active policing efforts. On a consistent basis, Officer Earle arrested felony suspects who possessed narcotics and guns, which provided him the opportunity to work in SED.”

9-Investigates also looked at the history of the other officers who were among the first initially to respond.

Officer William Jimenez has two supervisory referrals, one of which resulted in an internal investigation and an oral reprimand related to a court appearance. He’s been through three other formal internal investigations but was exonerated, including a case of deadly force.

Officer Michael Brown has 15 supervisory referrals related, including two related to bias free policing. He has faced internal investigations that results in two oral reprimands for obedience to policies and two written censures for the same violation.

Officer Luke Austin, who was one of the officers initiating the traffic stop has 11 supervisory referrals in his file, including one related to bias free policing. These referrals are typically sparked by complaints about an officer’s behavior toward the public or allegations they violated policies or procedures. Austin has received two oral reprimands, one for obedience to policies and procedures and other written directives and another for safe driving of police vehicles. and a written censure for obedience to policies and procedures and other written directives.

Those involved in this case have 5 open claims with the city for damage to the property at the home on South Street last June. So far, mom has received a check for just $700. Feliciano’s attorney plans to file a civil lawsuit related to the force used.

*Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct information regarding Officer John Earle’s disciplinary history.