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Coconut Creek police probe of officer in bathtub Taser incident missed facts, short on answers

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann, left, and Capt. John DiCintio

Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann, left, and Capt. John DiCintio

An internal police investigation of a Coconut Creek officer who pulled his Taser while interrogating a frightened theft suspect in a bathtub omitted relevant facts and did not follow department policy.

Police Chief Michael Mann ordered the inquiry last fall – more than a year after the bathtub incident involving Patrolman James Yacobellis and 19-year-old Blake L. Robinson.

To lead the investigation, the chief chose a police captain who has never worked as a detective.

Records show that Capt. John DiCintio did not do an actual investigation. His inquiry was limited to reviewing a flawed Broward State Attorney’s criminal probe of Yacobellis into possible assault and falsified police reports that ended with no charges.

In January, DiCintio sustained a pair of administrative charges against Yacobellis for committing an “unsafe practice” – leaving a second suspect, Robinson’s girlfriend, unattended while he questioned Robinson in the bathroom. Yacobellis was suspended for two weeks.

But DiCintio’s internal affairs report did not answer more disturbing questions that might lead to more serious discipline, including dismissal. Did Yacobellis threaten Robinson with his Taser while interrogating him alone in a bathtub? Did he try to cover it up by failing to mention it in his police reports?

Civil rights advocates have likened what happened to Robinson to a form of police torture. Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein has asked the Justice Department to investigate.

Former Miami Police Chief Ken Harms, an expert court witness in police misconduct cases, read the three-page internal affairs report at the request of BrowardBulldog.org. He called it “unprofessional, incomplete.”

“I don’t call that an investigation because of what’s missing,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they take their own statements? There are a number of issues not addressed in the statements that were given to prosecutors.”

Coconut Creek Chief Mann declined to discuss the details of the internal affairs report saying “it speaks for itself.” He added, however, that he considers Yacobellis to be a good officer and is glad he’s back on the job.

“I know this is a story for a lot of people. I get it. I understand it. It seems to have the fallaciousness to it,” Mann said. “But I’m over it right now. He’s been disciplined and he’s back to work. We’re monitoring him.

The bathtub incident occurred on Aug. 15, 2011 while Yacobellis was checking out a report of missing jewelry involving a family living in the Star Pointe apartment complex.

Blake L. Robinson Photo: WSVN,Channel 7

Blake L. Robinson Photo: WSVN,Channel 7

At one point, Yacobellis took Robinson into the small bathroom, closed the door, turned the sink faucet on full force, and made him stand in the tub. Yacobellis later acknowledged pulling his Taser, but not turning it on, because he thought Robison was preparing to fight. He added that Robinson did not seem frightened to him.

But Yacobellis’s supervisor that night, Sgt. Dominic Coppola, contradicted him on several key points.

Coppola said that when Yacobellis opened the door he was holding an activated Taser “with the laser beam emitting.” A “scared” Robinson was in the tub, he said.

Neither of Sgt. Coppola’s observations, sworn to under oath, are included in the “investigative findings” of the internal affairs report.

“Did they disbelieve the sergeant’s testimony?,” said ex-Miami Chief Harms. If they did, no reason was cited in the report.

Likewise, there is no apparent recognition in the report that Coppola’s statements corroborate suspect Robinson’s sworn account, and contradict Yacobellis. In his statement, Robinson stated that Yacobellis’s Taser was switched on, and that he was scared.

The internal affairs report also omits:

  • Coppola’s observation that when he arrived Yacobellis had a “fixated, tunnel vision demeanor” and stated, “I was telling Mr. Blake (Robinson) here how my report was going to read when he resists arrest and I tase him.”
  • Robinson’s vivid account of the bathtub incident, including details that dovetail with Coppola’s assertions.
  • The fact that Yacobellis‘s three police reports about that night do not mention the bathroom incident.

The report also does not address whether it is a violation of Coconut Creek police policy to interrogate a suspect in a bathroom. City rules for criminal investigations say suspect interviews are to be taped when possible, but Yacobellis’s interrogation of Robinson was not recorded.  The internal affairs report does not mention the matter.

Coconut Police Officer James Yacobellis

Coconut Police Officer James Yacobellis

Officers who encounter resistance and use a Taser are also required to file what’s known as an “Officer’s Response to Resistance Report.” An additional report is required if someone is injured.

Yacobellis did not file a response to resistance report. The internal affairs investigation does address it.

In an interview, however, Chief Mann said the officer was not obliged to file such a report. “The actual display of a Taser is not part of the use of force continuum,” he said.

Rules also say internal affairs investigators must conduct “a complete investigation of the alleged misconduct,” which includes interviewing the accused officer.  DiCintio did not interview Yacobellis. Instead, he relied on his statements to prosecutors who asked Yacobellis about possible crimes, not policy violations.

Capt. Gerald Feisthammel signed the police complaint that led to the internal inquiry. Chief Mann said he turned the complaint over to prosecutors in 2011 when he decided to ask them, not his own detectives, to investigate the bathtub incident as a possible crime.

The chief’s move was unusual: department policy and the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the Police Benevolent Association both contemplate a police inquiry in such matters.

“We turned it over to the State Attorney’s Office to basically see if there was any criminal investigation that needed to be done,” said Mann.

Captain Gerald Feisthammel

Captain Gerald Feisthammel

But questions surround Feisthammel’s complaint.

Prosecutors don’t have a copy of it in their case file. “We have no documents that reflect how this originated in our office,” public records custodian Susan Seltzer said in response to a reporter’s inquiry.

There is also a discrepancy about the date of the complaint. It indicates it was written on Sept. 19, 2011, the day Robinson filed his four-page handwritten complaint, but no case number was assigned until 2012. Coconut Creek Police rules require internal affairs investigations be documented immediately and receive a case number “issued sequentially by calendar year.”

Former Miami Chief Harms said those problems raise “a suspicious inference of backdating.”

“It was absolutely not backdated,” Mann said. He explained that the complaint did not immediately get a case number because “as we got into it we realized we were going to turn it over to the State Attorney’s Office.”

Records show that instead of immediately ordering an investigation, Mann initially treated it as a personnel matter. He put Yacobellis on paid administrative leave and, on Aug. 30, ordered him to undergo a “psychological fitness-for-duty evaluation.”

In his sworn statement, Yacobellis said the evaluation determined he was “temporarily unfit for duty.” He did not elaborate, or explain why he was apparently later deemed fit to carry a badge and a gun again.

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  • The entire story, including the State Attorney’s actions, would make a great Coen Brothers movie. It’s way over the edge,even for South Florida.

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