A Coconut Creek police officer who held an activated Taser stun gun at the ready while questioning a frightened 19-year-old theft suspect he made stand in a bathtub won’t be charged with a crime.
Civil rights advocates call Officer James Yacobellis’ interrogation of Blake L. Robinson on Aug. 15, 2011, a disturbing example of police misconduct akin to torture.
But Broward corruption prosecutors did not see it that way. In fact, their case closeout memo expressed tolerance for police use of the Taser as a technique to enhance an interrogation.
“It is entirely possible that Officer Yacobellis may have taken out his Taser in an attempt to scare Blake into confessing,” the memo says. “While this may not have been the best technique to interrogate a suspect, the intent, by all accounts, was certainly to help the victims recover their missing items.”
The memo, obtained by BrowardBulldog.org using Florida’s public records law, was written by Assistant State Attorney Stephanie Newman and approved Oct. 22 by Public Corruption Unit chief Timothy Donnelly.
“It sounds like we’re in Iraq,” said attorney John De Leon, who stepped down this month as president of the Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The actions of the prosecutor’s office clearly makes them complicit in the unlawful actions of the police officer, and by condoning those actions fosters a culture of improper, inappropriate and unlawful actions by police officers,” said De Leon.
Miami defense lawyer Jeanne Baker, immediate past president of the Florida ACLU, said police desire to obtain a confession does not justify pulling a Taser during an interrogation.
“Of course the officer had intent to obtain information, but you can’t use a method that smacks of excessive force,” said Baker.
Former Miami Police Chief Ken Harms reviewed the Broward State Attorney’s closeout memo at the request of BrowardBulldog.org. He called it “incomplete at best and amateurish at worst.”
“It clearly appears to try and sweep it under the rug,” said Harms.
Among other things, Harms said, the report does not acknowledge or examine questionable behavior by Yacobellis – such as taking the suspect into the bathroom alone for questioning – that “raises the inference of officer impropriety.”
“What the officer did was absolutely inappropriate,” said Harms. “Why not take (the suspect) outside, out of earshot of others and talk to him in plain view? What happened can only lead to allegations of misconduct.”
“A Taser is a form of intimidation if it is not used strictly to protect the officer’s interests. He put himself in that vulnerable position,” said Harms.
The memo says the State Attorney Office’s inquiry looked at a complaint received from the Coconut Creek Police Department regarding what happened after Officer Yacobellis responded to a report of missing jewelry by residents of the Star Pointe apartments on Aug. 15, 2011.
Gayle Brodman and others in her family summoned police. “All fingers quickly pointed to Gayle Brodman’s daughter Aimee Rubiano and her boyfriend, Blake Robinson,” the closeout memo says.
The family members, including suspects Rubiano and Robinson, were assembled at Brodman’s home at 3772 Cocoplum Circle when Officer Yacobellis arrived. Rubiano and Robinson also lived there at the time.
Passions were running high and Yacobellis took Rubiano and Robinson into a bedroom to confront them about the missing jewelry, the memo says. The officer then escorted Robinson into the bathroom. He turned the sink water faucet on so Rubiano could not hear their conversation “and had his Taser out,” the memo says.
Yacobellis’s interrogation of Robinson was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was Sgt. Dominic Coppola, who would later describe the bathroom as “extremely small, approximately eight feet long by three feet wide.”
In a sworn statement, Coppola testified that when the door was opened he saw the suspect standing in the tub and Officer Yacobellis “with his Taser down by his side with the laser beam (targeting system) emitting. The sink faucet was running at full capacity. The suspect, Blake Robinson, was speechless, with his hands down by his side and he appeared to have a blank, scared look on his face.”
Coppola, who observed that Yacobellis “appeared to have a fixated, tunnel vision demeanor,” asked what was going on.
Yacobellis said, “I was telling Mr. Blake (Robinson) here how my report was going to read when he resists arrest and I tase him,” according to Sgt. Coppola.
After a brief conversation, Coppola informed Yacobellis “his investigation has concluded” and instructed him to handcuff Robinson because there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest on misdemeanor marijuana charges.
“I informed Officer Yacobellis not to make investigations personal. Officer Yacobellis stated something to the fact of making it worth it by taking someone to the hospital,” said Coppola, who is now a lieutenant.
Robinson was never charged in the jewelry case. His girlfriend, Aimee Rubiano, was prosecuted and sentenced to probation after she was found to have pawned some of the missing property.
Sgt. Coppola’s account dovetails with a handwritten complaint filed against Yacobellis, who is white, by Robinson, who is black, on Sept. 19, 2011.
According to Robinson, he was standing in the tub when Yacobellis got word on his radio there was an active warrant.
That’s when Yacobellis took out his Taser, pointed it at him and said “how he could shoot me in several of my body parts like my kidneys, liver and my shoulders so that I would fall and hit my head and be unconscious… . He also stated that my legs would give way and if I hit my head the blood could easily be rinsed away and I would be dead or in the hospital… . I have felt terrified, violated and humiliated since that night.”
Officer Yacobellis wrote three police reports about his investigation of the missing jewelry. None mention the bathroom encounter or his display of his Taser.
Yacobellis later gave a voluntary statement to prosecutors in which he acknowledged pulling his stun gun, but said he did not “electric charge” it. He stated he took it out because Robinson “was becoming upset, it was a small bathroom and (Robinson) is 6-feet-two and he is only five-feet-seven,” the memo says.
Robinson weighed 150 pounds, a police report said.
Prosecutors concluded there wasn’t evidence to charge Yacobellis with any crime.
Falsifying police reports was not a possible charge because each of the witnesses testified how Yacobellis took Robinson into the bathroom for questioning.
“There appears to be no intent to hide this fact and the state has no evidence to rebut the contention that this was inadvertently left off the report,” the memo says.
Likewise, it was not possible to file an assault charge because it wasn’t clear whether Yacobellis “actually pointed the Taser at the suspect or merely took it out for his own protection against a larger individual.”
“The statements that Sergeant Coppola claimed were made to him by Officer Yacobellis could reasonably be interpreted as either threatening the suspect or (be) because he was acting in self-defense,” the memo says.
Ex-Miami Police Chief Harms, an expert court witness in police misconduct matters, said the Broward State Attorney’s effort was seriously deficient.
He said prosecutors appeared to have done little fact-finding beyond taking witness statements. For example, there is no indication in the memo that they sought to determine whether Officer Yacobellis was a problem employee by examining his internal affairs file and police evaluations, Harms said.
Prosecutors also did not establish a time frame of events, say when they learned of the allegations or identify which Coconut Creek officers, if any, conducted the internal criminal investigation that typically is the basis for a follow-up probe by prosecutors.
Harms also was critical of the internal accountability system put in place by State Attorney Mike Satz to review such important decisions.
“The memo went from (prosecutor) Newman to (supervisor) Donnelly, who is far down the pecking order. It was never reviewed up the food chain. It gives them the opportunity to have plausible deniability at the top,” said Harms.
The state’s decision to clear Yacobellis would be appropriate if a thorough inquiry had been made, but “it was apparently not of concern to them,” said Harms.
“What the prosecutor should have said is, ‘While we are unable to substantiate any criminal misconduct at this time we would encourage the department to initiate an appropriate investigation and keep us informed of any new information,’” Harms said.
Police records show Coconut Creek Police made only an administrative policy review of the matter after the State Attorney declined to prosecute.
Police Chief Michael Mann determined late last month that Yacobellis should serve a two-week suspension for “unsatisfactory performance and violation of rules” in this case and another matter. The discipline did not involve the bathroom incident.
This article was reprinted with permission from the Broward Bulldog, a site that specializes in investigative journalism.