Fla. Police Shoot Innocent Protestor, LaughPolice Apologize but Lawyer Plans Lawsuit for Rubber Bullet Shooting
Aug. 11, 2006
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MIAMI, Aug. 10, 2006 — - Call it unusual optimism, but Elizabeth Ritter counted herself lucky by day's end on Nov. 20, 2003.
On that day, the South Florida lawyer says, she was shot with rubber bullets at least four times by Miami-area law enforcement officers who were out in force to control protesters demonstrating against a free trade summit.
One bullet struck Ritter in the face.
"I felt there had been angels sitting on my shoulders because I had not been blinded by that shot," she said to ABC News.
She was demonstrating against law enforcement's handling of the protests.
A newly surfaced videotape that shows Broward Sheriff's Office officials laughing over footage of Ritter being shot by rubber bullets and calling protesters "cockroaches" has sparked outrage and prompted an apology from law enforcement.
"The Dade County Courthouse had been essentially closed by the police and essentially downtown Miami had been turned into what I perceived to be a police state," she said.
Apparently No Warning
Still dressed for work in a red blazer, Ritter took to the streets with a homemade sign that read "Fear Totalitarianism."
Before long, she was caught in a barrage of rubber-bullet fire.
Ritter said police offered no warning before firing on protesters.
"There was absolutely no indication either orally or by gesture that they wanted anyone to disperse or leave," she said. "Had the police given such an order, I would have obeyed it immediately."
Videotaped footage of the protests shows Ritter standing next to a police officer using a bullhorn to announce that the protests would be permitted to continue as long as they remained peaceful.
Ritter is later seen on the tape walking away from a line of officers when she is apparently shot in the leg with a rubber bullet.
She then turns toward the officers and asks, "Did you shoot me? A lady in a suit? Who has been walking peaceably in front of you for half an hour and you shot me when my back was turned?"
Ritter turns to a crowd of protesters and says, "Well, you all saw it. They have been watching me for a half hour. They know I'm not armed."
At the request of a photographer, she displays for the camera a fresh welt on the back of her leg, where it appears she has just been shot by a rubber bullet.
An audible barrage of rubber-bullet fire follows, as protesters are heard screaming in fear and pain, and yelling at officers, "What the [expletive] was that? Why did you do that to us?"
'I Felt Blessed'
The camera then finds Ritter again, crouched alone in the street under her sign as rubber bullets continue to fly around her. She said a rubber bullet pierced her foam-board sign and struck her forehead.
"I fortunately had my head down between my knees while I cowered on the ground under my sign, so the shot didn't hit me directly in the eye," she said. "It hit me in the top of the head, so I felt blessed."
A civilian review board investigated law enforcement response to the protests and found no criminal misconduct.
At the time Ritter believed her experience was an isolated incident.
"I had not filed any complaint against the police. My assumption was that there was one bad apple in the barrel. One sociopath on whatever police department had fired that shot," she said. "I assumed … the department would correct that mistake … and would discipline the officers involved in an appropriate manner."
A Sign of Depravity
The controversial tape of the officers laughing was shot by the Broward Sheriff's Office one day after Ritter was shot and was produced in response to a request by the civilian review board.
It shows a meeting of Broward Sheriff's deputies discussing their own response to the protests.
The Broward Sheriff's Office identified police Sgt. Michael Kallman as the officer who had discussed Ritter with the group of assembled deputies.
The tape shows no reprimand for the use of force as Ritter had hoped. Kallman and the deputies laugh about the incident.
"The lady in the red dress," Kallman says on the tape, to cheers and laughter. "I don't know who got her, but it went right through the sign and hit her smack dab in the middle of the head."
Another officer can be heard off-camera, asking, "Do I get a piece of her red dress?" Ritter said the tape had completely changed her take on what had happened to her that day.
"He congratulated officers rather than reprimand them for shooting an unarmed civilian who presented no threat whatsoever to them, in the head," she said. "It is so disappointing to me that an officer of the law, a police officer would be congratulating an officer for that."
The officer's jovial attitude about the use of force further offended -- and concerned -- Ritter. She believes that she was used as trophy.
"The concept that they would like a piece of my clothing to hang on their office wall as a trophy is a sign of depravity of thinking," she said.
"What type of training leads people to laugh about shooting an unarmed citizen for merely holding up a sign that says 'Fear Totalitarianism'?"
On the tape, Sgt. John Brooks praises Broward County deputies for their professionalism.
"Nobody did what they weren't supposed to do, and everybody did it in a professional manner. Because of that, we don't have the complaints," he said. "We don't have the headaches that can come postevent."
Now Brooks has apologized to Ritter for the comments on the tape.
"We want to apologize about those remarks that were made, both about her and about the event to say that we're sorry those remarks were made," he said to ABC News.
Brooks did not speak about the appropriateness of the use of force against Ritter, saying that it was not clear that she had been targeted by law enforcement.
Ritter plans to file a civil rights suit against Miami area law enforcement officials.
"I believe it's a disgrace to police officers everywhere," Ritter said. "Those people are very poor representatives of law enforcement. … Citizens must feel free to express their ideas peaceably in this country."
ABC News' Jessica Cesa and Marcia Izaguirre contributed to this report.