Bystanders condemn force while SPD claims assault

Jul. 15, 2014 @ 01:36 PM

Sanford police charged a man with assault on a law enforcement officer after a confrontation, captured on video, turned physical Saturday.

Jermez Smith, 20, who previously has been charged with assault on a female in May of this year and in April of last year, was walking down the road at the intersection of Nash Street and Bragg Street toward Lee Senior High School around 5 p.m. when Officer Michael Koonce saw him yelling loudly and gesturing at passing vehicles.

According to police and witnesses at the scene, Koonce turned around, parked and approached Smith to question him. After that, accounts from police and witnesses differ.

“[Smith] was walking in the road over there,” said Sanford Police Chief Ronnie Yarborough, “yelling, screaming at cars, giving all kinds of signs in the roadway.”

Yarborough said Smith was making gang gestures and yelling at Koonce as he drove by.

Yarborough said he would not tolerate his officers using excessive force, but that, in this case, his officer was well within his rights.

Darrick Taylor, who recorded one of the videos, said Smith had headphones on and was singing along to his music.

“I saw him walking,” Taylor said. “And he was singing or something. He had the earplugs in his ears. I don’t think he even heard the officer the first time he yelled at him. He wasn’t bothering anybody here.”

Taylor said Koonce attempted to question Smith, and that Smith backed away and repeatedly shouted, “I didn’t do nothing.”

“[Smith] was saying, ‘I didn’t do nothing,’” Taylor said. “The officer was saying, ‘Come here and talk to me.’ [Smith] kept walking away. [Koonce] tried to grab him, and he ended up grabbing him. [Smith] was trying to get [Koonce] off of him.”

Yarborough said that when someone physically resists arrest, there is always the danger of the person attempting to get the officer’s gun from them.

“It turned in to the officer having to use physical force,” Yarborough said, “because [Smith] was refusing to be taken into custody. You’ve got a very dangerous situation there. You’ve got the officer worried about his own life.”

Yarborough said he listened to the struggle on the officer’s police radio, and that Koonce could be heard, out of breath, calling for backup.

“[Koonce] had placed [Smith] under arrest,” Yarborough said. “[Smith] clearly resisted arrest. The law says you can use reasonable force to effect an arrest, and the officer definitely did that in that case.”

Taylor said he could understand using force to subdue Smith once he resisted arrest, but that the extent to which it was used once he was already on the ground was unnecessary.

“I did not witness the whole thing,” said Sanford resident Millie Jones, who arrived at the scene once the altercation was under way. “But when I drove up, I saw police arresting a young man. I called 911, they said officers were already dispatched to the scene.” 

Jones said she watched officer Koonce wrestling Smith to the ground.

“I can understand one [officer] wrestling him,” she said. “And I can understand two more coming and holding him down. But my concern was when I saw this fourth cop come up and start punching him and punching him and punching him when they were already holding him down.”

Barbara Morton, another witness to the event, said she saw four officers standing around Smith while Koonce held him down and struck him.

“I can’t control what people say,” Yarborough said. “What happens is these people start throwing stuff on Facebook knowing very little about what they’re talking about. ...

“I don’t see the officer striking him [in the video],” Yarborough said. “But, if he did, he would be totally OK. In this case, you’ve got an officer struggling there by himself, and he’s got a job to do.”

Smith is currently being held in Lee County Jail under a $6,000 bond.

A video can be viewed via the Sanford Herald's youtube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aQ29RS1gqU&list=UUNRc9pUOMxJ9r-zXfvbGrDw.

The video contains profanity.