'I can't breathe.' Body camera video shows aggressive encounter with Sarasota police

Timothy Fanning
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

SARASOTA – The Sarasota Police Department has released body camera footage from a use-of-force incident on Sunday at Fredd Atkins Park, a case that is now under internal investigation. 

The 5-minute video shows a scene in which two officers approach a 32-year-old man. Just 30 seconds later, officers John Clancy and Paul Gagnon grab hold of him. They announce that there is a warrant out for his arrest. Officers don’t respond when the man asks about the nature of the warrant.

Seconds later, Clancy and Gagnon attempt to pull him to the shell-lined ground. 

A body-worn camera is knocked off an officer’s uniform. The upward-facing camera shows Clancy holding the suspect in a headlock, and Gagnon grabbing his left leg, the man’s white and yellow sneaker in the air.

Minutes later, the man is on the ground pleading with officers to let him up. 

Then: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” 

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In a video captured by a bystander and posted on Facebook, Gagnon is seen lying on a suspect, his head placed in a headlock. One of the officers explains to bystanders that it is a “controlling technique.”

A crowd forms. One bystander can be heard saying: “He sounds like (George) Floyd. You’re going to kill him.” 

As the crowd inches closer, Gagnon is seen on camera addressing bystanders. He stands, holding pepper spray. 

“Back up, I am just going to start spraying everybody,” Gagnon said.

“Back the f--- up,” Gagnon said. “I’m not playing this game.”

One bystander tells the officer that he’s being recorded on video.  

“That’s fine,” Gagnon said. “You are all on body camera, too.” 

A still image of body camera footage captures Officer Paul Gagnon threatening to use pepper spray on bystanders if they don't disperse.

‘Utmost sense of transparency’

The incident comes just a month after the Sarasota Police Department began rolling out body-worn cameras for all the officers in its patrol division. The footage was posted on the department’s YouTube page “in the utmost sense of transparency,” according to a spokeswoman. 

Chief Jim Rieser declined to comment on the incident because it is under an internal affairs investigation. 

The video posted on YouTube is narrated by police spokeswoman Genevieve Judge. It’s impossible to hear what is actually being said on the body camera, as she explains over the recording's native audio that the man in the video was wanted on a felony warrant out of Manatee County. 

The Herald-Tribune has reviewed separate footage of the incident, including a bystander video posted on social media

The suspect was charged with resisting an officer with violence and possession of a controlled substance. Police say he concealed a small bag of what they suspect is MDMA in each of his socks. Records show he was appointed a public defender and is still in jail. He has pleaded not guilty. 

The Herald-Tribune no longer names suspects in minor crimes, as part of new public safety coverage standards.

Assistant public defender Matthew Gish, who represents the suspect in the case, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. 

'Call the police on the police'

A body camera video shows Gagnon approaching the suspect just seconds before he's wrestled to the ground.

Around 5 p.m. on Sunday, Clancy and Gagnon exit their patrol vehicle and walk through Fredd Atkins Park. A minute later, they approach a man and surround him. One officer asks for his name. The suspect searches through his belongings for a wallet. He asks someone out of view for help finding it. 

One officer said: “You can’t tell us your name?”

The man finally answers. Then, as he looks down at his phone, an officer steps within feet of him and asks him to put it down. The man takes a few steps backward and asks why. Body camera footage then shows both officers grab hold of his biceps. 

The suspect protests and asks why officers are grabbing him. 

Clancy and Gagnon wrestle with a man during an arrest.

“Come on man, we have a warrant,” an officer is heard saying. 

“You got a warrant for what?” the man responds as the officers step closer. “Hold up, hold up.”

The officers didn’t respond to the man's questions. They warn him that he will “go to the ground” if he doesn’t comply. 

Just three seconds after he’s asked to put his hands behind his back, officers shove and attempt to tackle him. The suspect fights to regain his balance for a few seconds before he’s tackled to the shell-lined ground. It takes about 26 seconds. 

The man yells for his phone and appears to ask someone to call his sister. A crowd gathers, and an officer again asks him to put his hands behind his back. 

In a video captured by a bystander and posted on Facebook, Gagnon is seen lying on the man, his head placed in a headlock. One of the officers explains to bystanders that it is a “controlling technique.” 

Bystander video shows Clancy, in the dark uniform, and Gagnon trying to force Johnson to the ground.

Clancy has his hand grasped around the back of the man’s head like a basketball. The suspect can be seen trying to lift his body, before being shoved to the ground behind a garbage can. 

The man is heard on camera yelling “stop.” 

A bystander responds: “Y’all don’t have to do it like that. You’re going to break his neck.” 

Clancy lies on top of him, and for a minute, the suspect can be heard repeatedly pleading with officers to get off him. 

One bystander says: “Look at all that weight on him, they’re going to break his bones.” 

Then: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” 

Another bystander: “That sounds like George Floyd.” 

“Someone call the police on the police,” says another.

“Who is going to do it?” one woman said. 

Bystander video shows Clancy, in the dark uniform, and Gagnon on top of a suspect.

'Zero to sixty'

Sarasota County NAACP President Trevor Harvey said that he has reviewed multiple videos captured from the arrest on Sunday. Harvey has yet to develop a clear position on the incident and would not speculate whether the use of force was excessive.  

“I don’t have a clear answer to say whether this was just a normal arrest or just excessive,” Harvey said. “If you are looking for something else, I don’t have it right now.” 

Harvey did take issue with the speed at which things appeared to escalate.

“From what I saw, it was like it went from zero to sixty,” he said.

Harvey and the NAACP were a part of the initial group that pushed for body cameras for the Sarasota Police Department seven years ago. 

He said the cameras are acting as they were intended, to “capture stuff like this.”

“It provides all of that level of transparency,” Harvey said. “It provides a level of accountability on everyone’s side. It captures everything, and that’s what I like about the body cameras. It hides nothing.”