Officers criticized after tussle
By LEON M. TUCKER, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- The sweat was just breaking on Joe Walden's face when his shadowboxing workout was interrupted by a group of neighborhood kids.
"The cops are looking at your car, Joe," Walden recalls the youngsters saying.
Still wearing boxing gloves, the 18-year-old left the tiny room at the Ross Norton Recreation Complex on Monday and approached the Clearwater officers outside.
He says one officer told him the silver 2001 Chevrolet Impala parked there was stolen. A confrontation followed.
Two police reports state that Walden lunged at an officer, forcing police to arrest him.
Walden denies he lunged at anyone. He and two witnesses say Walden was handcuffed, knocked to the ground and eventually taken to jail, where he was booked on charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
It turns out that the car was Walden's, not stolen. And witnesses -- including Safety Harbor City Commissioner Robin Borland, a boxing enthusiast who was training alongside Walden that day -- said police used force that was excessive and disturbing.
"I was taken aback by it," said Borland. "It disturbed me because I thought it was excessive for them to be doing that."
Family members, including Walden's great-uncle, Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris -- are outraged at the incident, which they think was racially charged. Walden is black; he said that each of the four officers who were there are white.
"This whole thing with Joe was based on the assumption that an African-American youngster can't wear Nikes or drive a nice car because he is African-American and (therefore) is not supposed to have these things legally," said Harris, former chairman of the commission. "This is something that we cannot have happening."
Borland and boxing trainer Ben Getty said they saw police throw Walden against a wall and slam him to the ground before he was put into the back of a police cruiser.
"It didn't seem to me that he did anything that would warrant that type of behavior," Borland said.
Police officials have launched an internal inquiry into the matter, but the department is precluded by law from discussing it, police spokesman Wayne Shelor said. He identified the officers involved as Benjamin Hailey, Natalie Pehote, Sean Allaster and Terri Naumann.
"It's a standard investigation where internal affairs will interview those involved," Shelor said.
The afternoon began as many others had in the more than five years that Getty has run the Clearwater Boxing Program.
The half-dozen or so youngsters and adults show up at the small room on the south side of the recreation building for their daily workout.
They run a mile or two, then do sit-ups and start shadowboxing.
Walden, a landscaper for the city of Clearwater, said he left the gym after hearing that police were examining his car and asked officers: "What's the problem?"
An officer replied, "This car is stolen," according to Walden.
Walden said he wanted to go back inside the gym to retrieve his keys and his driver's license, but an officer stopped him at the door.
Walden protested. An officer picked Walden up and slammed him to the concrete twice, said Borland and Getty, who were watching through a window. Walden was handcuffed while he was held on the ground, Borland, Getty and Walden said.
"I felt like it was wrong the way I got treated," Walden said. "For all that, there was no reason for that."
After the scuffle, Getty said he pleaded with the police officers to bring Walden inside to help calm him down. Officers agreed.
Getty said that by that time, officers had established that the car was Walden's and it had not been stolen.
But officers insisted that Walden apologize to a female officer with whom he had had the earlier argument. When Walden went outside to apologize, the officers began yelling at him, Getty said.
"I thought if they took me outside to apologize to the lady, it would be all right and I could finish my workout," Walden said. "And I still got arrested."
Two police affidavits tell a different story.
The reports state that officers noticed that no license plate was on the vehicle, so officers called in the vehicle's identification number to see if the car was stolen. While they were doing this, the reports state, Walden came outside and started yelling and waving his hands in front of officers Hailey and Pehote.
When Pehote went back to the vehicle, the reports say, Walden lunged at her, forcing the other officer to pull him back. Walden ran toward her three more times before officers arrested him, the reports say.
Getty and Borland said they tried to leave the gym to see what was happening but were told to "back off" and were threatened with arrest if they came out. So they watched through the window in the door.
"I felt so sorry for him because I couldn't do anything," Getty said. Borland agreed.
"I didn't understand why the one cop was holding the door shut and not letting him back in the building because all parties seemed to be calmed down by then," she said. "They certainly need to do an investigation."
Walden's mother, Sabrina Walden, and her cousin, Bettina Parker, attended a Neighborhood Watch meeting at the recreation complex on Wednesday night, where they voiced their concerns to Sgt. Ronald Sudler of the Clearwater Police Department's Internal Affairs unit.
Both Sabrina Walden and Parker vehemently stated that they wanted those involved in the incident taken off patrol.
Sudler also declined to comment pending the outcome of the internal investigation.
"It makes me frustrated because whenever he goes to the rec (center) I'm concerned because I don't want anything to happen to him," Sabrina Walden said. "I don't even like him being down there because if they see him talking to someone, they assume he's selling drugs.
"I just want to make sure nothing like this happens to my son again, and I don't want anyone else's child being slammed to the ground."
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