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68 Bullets: Too Much Force?

It all began with a simple traffic stop. Polk County Sheriff’s Deputy Doug Speirs pulled over Angilo Freeland just before noon on Sept. 28 for speeding along an avenue in Lakeland, Fla. But when Speirs asked for Freeland’s driver’s license, Freeland, 27, produced a dubious-looking state ID card. Would he have to go to jail for not having a valid license? he asked the deputy, according to authorities. Moments later, Freeland fled into a wooded area beside the road.

Speirs radioed for backup, and soon Deputy Matt Williams arrived with his dog Diogi. The three set off into the woods. Freeland apparently hid behind the exposed roots of a fallen oak, according to dispatch tapes and a law-enforcement account given to The Tampa Tribune. Catching his pursuers by surprise, Freeland shot and killed the police dog, then quickly pumped Williams full of bullets, one of which penetrated his spine. Freeland then shot Williams twice more in the head at point-blank range.

Speirs moved toward the gunfire. “I’m coming to you,” he told Williams over the radio, according to the Tampa Tribune report. Then Freeland appeared over a ridge and fired at him. Though Speirs managed to shoot back, he was wounded in the leg during the exchange. “I’ve been hit, too,” he told the dispatcher. Now authorities mounted a massive manhunt, including 500 officers, every available police dog, a SWAT tank and a helicopter. They soon found Williams dead, and his gun and ammunition missing. For the rest of the day and overnight, authorities scoured the woods for Freeland. Not until the next morning did a 10-person SWAT team finally corner him. He was hunkered down under another fallen oak, not far from where he’d killed the deputy. When the cops spotted a gun in Freeland’s hand—Williams’s .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol—they opened fire on him. And plenty of it: 110 bullets in all, 68 of which hit him.

That barrage has now sparked a controversy over the amount of force used on Freeland. Did law enforcement overreact because one of their own had been slain? Or was the hail of bullets justified? Though the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the local state attorney’s office are reviewing the incident, Freeland’s family members say that’s not enough. They argue that the sheriff’s office can’t credibly scrutinize itself, and they’re calling on Gov. Jeb Bush to order an independent investigation. The family is “not defending what [Freeland] did,” says Jorge Angulo, one of the attorneys representing the family pro bono. “They are asking why he was shot so many times. Why was he not taken alive?” Bush “will not even consider an independent investigation” until the current inquiries conclude, a spokeswoman responds. A sheriff’s spokesman defends how authorities acted, arguing that Freeland “had demonstrated a brutal lack of concern for human life” and that “officers perceived there to be a threat and responded appropriately.”

Others have protested law enforcement’s handling of the situation as well. The Florida Civil Rights Association has called on U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to order an independent investigation by the Justice Department. A Justice spokeswoman said the department was waiting for the results of the state probe before deciding whether to conduct their own. Race may have been a factor, the FCRA argues; Freeland was black, while most of the officers were white. “The police tactics and the force used in the manhunt of a black man … is profoundly disturbing and raises questions that are too important to be dismissed,” says J. Willie David III, FCRA’s president. The group is especially critical of certain comments made by Polk County authorities in the aftermath of Freeland’s death. “I suspect the only reason 110 rounds was all that was fired was that’s all the ammunition they had,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told the Associated Press. The civil rights group cites the case of Amadou Diallo, a black man killed in New York in 1999 in a hail of 41 bullets. That case drew national attention and provoked widespread condemnation of the officers involved. Freeland’s story, on the other hand, has remained mostly a local matter and hasn’t sparked nearly as much outcry. But of course, Diallo didn’t kill one deputy and maim another.

The black community in Polk County has occasionally filed complaints about racial profiling and excessive force in the past. But those incidents were not nearly as extreme, says Don Brown, president of the Lakeland branch of the NAACP, who met with a sheriff’s representative after the shooting. “I’m still looking into the case,” says Brown. But “on the surface, it doesn’t look right … It does look like it was an excessive amount of bullets.”

Freeland remains somewhat of an enigma. His family claims not to have known of any illicit activities he was involved in, according to Angulo. But he had a rap sheet that included charges of resisting arrest and carrying a concealed firearm. Since Freeland’s death, authorities say that searches of his home and vehicle have yielded a book of drug contacts, a handgun, two assault rifles and a journal. In one diary entry, Freeland wrote that “I do feel pain and the pain is real it is the kind that makes you what [sic] to destroy every and anything in your path.” Perhaps it was that pain that drove him to lash out as he did, inviting the fury of law enforcement in return.

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