Opinion

Police shoot unarmed man in own driveway, Fla. back in spotlight

The shooting of an unarmed man outside his home by sheriff’s deputies in northwest Florida is drawing national attention again to the Sunshine State.

And once again, it’s the wrong kind of attention.

The man is black. The sheriff’s deputies are white.

crimesceneThe Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the case of Warrington resident Roy Middleton, 60, who was shot early Saturday outside his home by two Escambia County sheriff’s deputies. The deputies were responding to a 911 report of an apparent car burglary, according to the Pensacola News Journal, which has been all over the story (see story and full coverage links here).

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the deputies found a man inside a car in a driveway and ordered him to come out with his hands up. When they perceived him to be “lunging” at them from the vehicle, they fired.

Middleton’s family has a slightly different story. His mother, who lives at the house and was awakened by the gunfire, said he was shot for no reason after rummaging in the car in search of a cigarette – which apparently is what the 911 caller saw and misinterpreted as  someone trying to hot wire the vehicle.

After the shooting, Middleton told deputies he first thought a neighbor was joking when he heard someone tell him to come out with his hands up.

He was hit twice in his legs. One leg bone was shattered, the News Journal reported.

So, yes, it was a bad day for everyone. For Middleton, obviously. For the two deputies, who have been placed on administrative leave pending the results of the FDLE investigation. And for Florida as a whole.

While the News Journal has covered the story locally and media outlets ran the Associated Press version around the state, it has received wide notice outside Florida in papers like the New York Daily News and the International Business Times.

Two developments Wednesday are likely to bring the case to even greater notoriety.

One is Middleton has hired a lawyer, Lorenzo Williams, a partner in the high-powered Stuart-based law firm of Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson & Gary. The second: It went national, with a story on CNN.com.

Why?

Because after the George Zimmerman trial, everything Florida is suspect in the national media’s view. CNN’s headline was restrained: “Florida police shoot man they mistook for car thief in his driveway.” The New York Daily News took matters a little further with, “Florida police shoot unarmed black man in his driveway.” (“Another day in Florida,” the story began.)

And the fringe has had a field day with the story. One typical example: “White sheriffs racially profile and shoot unarmed black man.”

So far at least, judging from the News Journal coverage and stories on local TV stations, race — Middleton’s or the deputies’ — hasn’t been an essential element to descriptions about what happened Saturday morning. That’s only been the focus of outlets far from the scene, those with an agenda to push.

The main reason the Trayvon Martin shooting made headlines was because there was no arrest immediately afterward, because the state attorney on the scene concluded – correctly, as it turned out – that however unfortunate the outcome, no law had been broken.

The Warrington shooting is under investigation by the FDLE, and it’s being covered by the local newspaper with a professional competence sorely lacking in the national media’s coverage of the Zimmerman case.

If it’s a case of nervous deputies getting trigger happy on a crime-in-progress call at 3 a.m. – and damn-near killing a 60-year-old man out for a smoke in his own driveway – we’ll find out.

If it’s a case of a man defying clearly visible police officers and provoking – for whatever reason – a confrontation that could have had a tragic outcome, we’ll find out.

In the meantime, it would be helpful if everyone – especially those with a printing press, satellite truck or website – could take a breath and do as Escambia County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Rhonda Ray suggested to BizPac Review on Wednesday.

“We’re asking the public to withhold judgment about our deputies until all the facts come out,” she said.

That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Check out interviews with Middleton’s mother and sister, as well as excerpts from a news briefing by Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan below. Morgan’s full news briefing can be found here:

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Joe Saunders

Joe Saunders, a 25-year newspaper veteran, is a staff writer and editor for BizPac Review who lives in Tallahassee and covers capital and Florida politics. Email Joe at [email protected].

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