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'They ignited the situation': Fort Lauderdale police fractured eye socket of peaceful protester

Sarah Blaskey and Nicholas Nehamas, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MIAMI -- LaToya Ratlieff was stumbling away from a cloud of tear gas in downtown Fort Lauderdale on Sunday -- choking, coughing and trying not to vomit -- when a police officer shot a foam rubber bullet at her head.

The round, traveling more than twice the speed of a Major League fastball, smashed into her face just above the right eye, opening up a bloody gash. The impact brought Ratlieff, who was attending an anti-police brutality protest, to her knees. Her eye started to swell shut. Her eye socket was fractured, her medical records show. The projectile that likely struck her, known as a foam baton, has roughly the density of a racquet ball and is fired from a rifle-barreled launcher. Foam batons are considered a lethal munition when aimed at the head, according to the manufacturer's manual.

Shooting Ratlieff in the face as she left the scene would seem to violate the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's policy on proper use of so-called "less lethal munitions."

The weapons policy, posted on the department's website, states officers should aim for the head and neck "only if deadly force becomes necessary."

Moments before being shot around 7 p.m., Ratlieff was kneeling on the ground, encouraging other marchers to stay peaceful and join her. From their knees, the group begged police in riot gear to stop using tear gas on protesters, who had been angered after seeing an officer shove a kneeling woman minutes earlier and had tossed water bottles at police in response. The protest had been peaceful all afternoon. As Ratlieff and the other protesters kneeled, the situation seemed back under control. But police resumed launching tear gas canisters from behind a wall of shields. Several protesters backed away with their hands in the air.

When the gas began to choke Ratlieff, another woman led her to safety. Ratlieff was off to the side moving away from the gas and the remaining protesters when an officer took aim. Someone yelled at the officer to stop. It didn't work. The officer fired. The next moments were a blur. She wasn't even in pain at first.

 

"It wasn't until I saw all the blood on the ground that it hit me," said Ratlieff, a 34-year-old grant writer for nonprofits who lives in Delray Beach. "I've been shot."

Miami Herald reporters witnessed the incident. A black projectile hit Ratlieff in the forehead and ricocheted 50 feet down the street. Reporters were unable to locate the munition, but later returned to the scene and found cartridges labeled: "40 mm Foam Baton."

The Police Department's policy for using foam batons states: "For safety reasons the deploying officer utilizing a less-lethal weapon should not aim at the head, throat, face, or groin area of a suspect. ... The potential for causing death or serious physical injury by such projectiles is a reality."

It also states officers should give a verbal warning to disperse before using projectiles. No such warning was given, according to Ratlieff and more than a dozen other protesters in the area. Herald reporters standing nearby also heard no warning.

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