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Unfriendly Fire

Larry Jackson could be excused for disliking cops. After all, the 48-year-old found himself on the wrong end of a Taser this past September 2 after three City of Miami police officers mistakenly stopped him at gunpoint, then — he claims — manhandled and cursed at him. The thing is,...
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Larry Jackson could be excused for disliking cops.

After all, the 48-year-old found himself on the wrong end of a Taser this past September 2 after three City of Miami police officers mistakenly stopped him at gunpoint, then — he claims — manhandled and cursed at him.

The thing is, Jackson is a city cop himself, a decorated sergeant with 25 years on the force. His fate with the department is up in the air after a preliminary report by the force's internal affairs department found him guilty of misconduct in the traffic stop incident. But it's unclear whether Jackson was provoked into punching one of the officers, Michael Ragusa. And the finding could be overturned.

As has happened dozens of times over the years, from the Leonardo Mercado case to the Free Trade Area of the Americas riots, the incident raises questions about city cops' brutality. In fact Ragusa has twice been accused of excessive force during his three-year career.

It all began about 5:00 on a weekday evening. Jackson had just left his mother's house at NW 57th Street and Tenth Avenue in Liberty City when he noticed a police cruiser in the rearview mirror of his Ford Explorer. The patrol car stayed on Jackson's tail even after he dropped off his son at a barber shop. When the blue lights came on at NW 54th Street and Second Avenue, Jackson pulled over. Then two more cruisers pulled up next to his SUV. Jackson started to get nervous, he later told investigators. "I'm thinking like, hey I'm a cop, what's going on?"

The three officers on the scene — Ragusa, Marie Poteau, also in her third year on patrol, and Pierre Dorce, a ten-year veteran — thought they had pulled over a suspect in a recent aggravated battery case. Because the suspect was said to be armed and dangerous, the trio approached Jackson's SUV with guns drawn.

While Jackson's Explorer matched a description of the suspect's vehicle, the dispatcher had failed to notice a key detail when Dorce called in the license plate number. The SUV was registered to 400 NW Second Ave. — police headquarters.

Poteau shouted for Jackson to exit the Explorer. But the 25-year veteran was unresponsive at first. He told investigators his windows didn't work, and he was scared to make any sudden moves, including getting his badge from the dashboard. "I'm like, these [are] rookies," he said, "so I was afraid to even reach for the ID."

Jackson told the officers he was one of them, pulling up his shirt to reveal his holstered handgun, and saying his badge was under the dash. Then, he contends, Ragusa pushed him repeatedly toward the back of the car and lunged at him. When Jackson put his hands up to defend himself, Sgt. Robert Laurenceau, a ten-year veteran who had just arrived on the scene, stunned him in the lower back with 50,000 volts.

Ragusa, Dorce, and a civilian witness indicated that Jackson may have had it coming. They agreed the older officer struck out with a closed fist at Ragusa, the blow glancing off his neck and leaving scratches. "This guy was not at all acting like a cop," Ragusa told investigators. Tina Vickers, a woman who had been standing across the street at the time, claimed the two officers exchanged blows.

The stun gun Laurenceau used, a Taser X26, is standard issue for hundreds of police departments around the country. It looks like a pistol, but uses compressed nitrogen to fire two barbed electrodes. Massive voltage courses through wires that connect the electrodes to the gun, causing uncontrollable muscle contractions and temporary paralysis. Tasers are rarely lethal, but have been responsible for the deaths of at least 220 people in the United States, according to Amnesty International. Heart problems and drug use are often contributing factors in fatal cases.

Taser, the most widely used brand of stun gun, received unwanted attention in 2004 when a Miami-Dade County Police officer used one on a broken-glass-wielding six-year-old boy at Kelsey Pharr Elementary School in Brownsville. In the wake of the case Florida lawmakers mandated stun gun training for police, and specified the weapon should be used only when a person is actively resisting and appears able to harm an officer or escape. City of Miami police policy allows Taser usage on pregnant women, children under 14 and the "obviously elderly or infirm," only when deadly force is justified. Officers are supposed to give warnings "whenever reasonable and practical."

Jackson didn't get a warning. "I can see the Taser, I can feel the current, and I'm looking like, I don't believe this," Jackson said. After Jackson had writhed around a bit on the pavement, Ragusa slapped cuffs on him and lifted him up. Seeing Jackson's face for the first time, Laurenceau recognized his colleague — "Oh shit, it's Larry."

The local Fraternal Order of Police represented both Ragusa and Jackson during the course of the Internal Affairs investigation. FOP president Armando Aguilar declined to pass judgment on the officers involved, but added, "I think [the traffic stop] could have been handled better." Aguilar said he had never heard of a police officer using a stun gun on another officer, mistakenly or otherwise.

Internal investigators apparently believed the other officers more than Jackson, the only one for whom misconduct was substantiated. While Jackson's personnel file contains five reprimands, mostly for minor incidents such as failing to show up for handgun training or court appearances, it is also filled with commendations and examples of community service.

Ragusa's three years on the force so far have netted him six citizen complaints ranging from accusations of rudeness to use of excessive force. In a case similar to Jackson's, a City of Miami employee named Clint Glenn accused Ragusa of roughing him up during a traffic stop this past summer. Glenn claimed Ragusa approached his car with gun drawn, pulled him from the vehicle, threw him against it, then "slammed" him to the asphalt. "My job is to get thugs off the street," Ragusa allegedly told Glenn after handcuffing him.

The next step in Jackson's case is a departmental hearing, a quasi-trial before a panel of officers. Following that, Police Chief John Timoney will weigh in. Timoney, himself the subject of criticism over his leadership during the FTAA riots, may request more investigation into the case before he metes out punishment, which could involve firing Jackson. Finally the case could be appealed to the Civil Service Board.

After the incident last fall, both Jackson and Ragusa were shaken and angry. When Officer Dorce offered back the sergeant's firearm, Jackson waved him off. "Dude, get away from me," he said. "Don't try to talk to me now."

Ragusa stalked off to his patrol car where he sat alone. "It troubled me," he told investigators, "because I could not believe that not only was this really an officer, that this was a sergeant, and a sergeant in our department."

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