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Family alleges excess force by police

The Zephyrhills police chief isn't commenting on an incident in a yard where friends and relatives gathered Sunday.

By MOLLY MOORHEAD

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 11, 2002


ZEPHYRHILLS -- Geraldine McCants used the words "awful" and "embarrassing."

Her son, Orion, 31, called it "straight harassment."

But whatever happened at Frankie McKenzie's house on Sunday afternoon, Zephyrhills police Chief Jerry Freeman isn't talking about it or releasing records.

"It's under investigation," Freeman said, citing confidentiality rules.

The McCantses told the St. Petersburg Times that a gathering of about 20 friends and relatives at McKenzie's home on Airport Road turned ugly when a police officer came into the yard, threatened people with pepper spray and handcuffed two of the men.

The incident came to light when City Manager Steve Spina told City Council members in a public meeting Monday that the department was investigating an incident in which excessive force had been alleged. But on Tuesday, no report was available, and the police would not provide details.

The chief said that if the matter was to become an internal investigation, it would not be immediately public. City Attorney Tom McAlvanah said later Tuesday that an incident report should be completed today and would be a public record. The Times responded with a formal public records request.

Unlike police officials, the McCantses were eager to tell their side of the story.

Geraldine McCants, a sergeant at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution and a member of the city's Planning Commission, said her family always eats at her sister's house on Sundays.

This week, her younger son, Marcus, 28, was visiting from Dallas with a friend.

"We were just eating, watching the game, having a good time like we always do," Geraldine McCants said.

Marcus and his brother, Orion, were hanging out in the front yard about 2:30 p.m. with their cousin, P.J. Pickett, who had ridden up on his dirt bike. Pickett's younger brother, Ryan, is a defensive tackle for the St. Louis Rams. Ryan Pickett was not at the house Sunday.

Orion McCants and his mother gave this account of what occurred next:

Zephyrhills police Officer Robert Pittman passed by the house in his patrol car. He continued down the road before turning back toward the house at 5350 Airport Road, Orion McCants said.

McCants said Pittman calmly warned Pickett not to ride his dirt bike in the clay pits near the airport, and Pickett assured him he wouldn't. The pits are on private property, and police have had problems with people riding their recreational vehicles through them illegally.

Pittman, who had stayed in his car, drove off, Orion McCants said. But 50 yards down the road, Pittman turned around and approached the house again.

This time, he got out of the car with a notebook in hand.

"He came back; his whole body language was different," McCants said.

Pittman asked Pickett for his driver's license and registration. McCants said Pickett didn't have his license with him and questioned the officer's order.

Pittman then told Pickett to get off the bike. When Pickett stood up, McCants said, Pittman yelled "Get off your bike!" and pulled out his can of pepper spray.

Geraldine McCants, who had been inside watching the Buccaneers-Falcons game, noticed the commotion and went outside. She said she also saw Pittman yelling at Pickett and pointing the pepper spray at him.

"(Pittman) was just off the chain," she said. "He was really out of control."

Orion McCants said he approached Pickett to take his bike helmet from him, and "then (Pittman) came running at me."

"He started grabbing and snatching my shirt, throwing me all around," Orion McCants said.

About six small children were in the yard witnessing the commotion, Geraldine McCants said, including Orion's 6-year-old son, Marcus, named after his uncle. She quickly shuffled the kids into the house.

Geraldine McCants said of Pittman, "He was a madman."

McKenzie then came out of the house to see what was happening. Pittman told McKenzie to stay back, and put the pepper spray in her face, McCants said.

"He was right up on her," McCants said.

She estimated four or five police cars and six officers eventually arrived at the house. They handcuffed Orion McCants and Pickett and put McCants in the back of a cruiser.

At one point, Pittman, who worked at the prison in 2000, recognized Geraldine McCants as his former co-worker. Another of the officers at the scene, Detective Michael Kirk, knew Orion from high school. Orion McCants said he asked Kirk what was wrong with Pittman and why was he so angry, and Kirk responded, "I don't know."

Pittman, 23, was hired in March 2001 at an annual salary of $28,300 and has a clean record, according to his personnel file. There are no reprimands or complaints on his record. In November of this year, he was granted the transfer he requested from the Criminal Investigation Division to patrol. He requested the change in pursuit of more stable work hours so he could further his education at Pasco-Hernando Community College.

In October of this year, he and Kirk received a letter of thanks from the Hardin County, Tenn., Sheriff's Office for providing help in an investigation, according to the file.

When a sergeant, whose identity is not known, arrived at the house, Orion McCants said the sergeant pulled Pittman aside and talked with him privately.

Then the officers uncuffed the men, and the incident was over.

No one was arrested; no one was injured. Geraldine McCants said the sergeant never spoke to her.

"I want to know why did he handcuff me," Orion McCants said, adding that Pittman's answer when asked was that McCants was obstructing an arrest. "He told me 'I could take you to jail.' "

McCants said his son later asked him whether the police were angry because he hadn't paid a ticket.

"He wanted to know why," McCants said. "How am I supposed to tell him that even though you saw that, you're still supposed to trust the police?"

-Staff writer Chase Squires contributed to this report.

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