Fired FMPD officer’s body-camera footage from traffic stop in question
FMPD officer Tyler Williams was fired after an internal affairs investigation showed he made multiple violations during a traffic stop in January 2020.
Courtesy of Fort Myers Police Department, USA TODAY Handout
A fired Fort Myers police officer told investigators a sleeping toddler in a car full of syringes and drugs was not in more danger than she would of been in a kitchen with knives, defending his decision not to arrest her mother or contact child welfare services.
Tyler Williams was fired Feb. 23, after an internal investigation claimed he violated four policies during a January 2020 traffic stop, leading to the death of a toddler.
Court documents outline how cop handled traffic stop
He served five years as a police officer with Fort Myers Police Department.
In those five years, Williams was put on paid administrative leave once, following an officer-involved shooting in 2017 that he was involved in. After an investigation, it was determined that Williams was justified in using deadly force.
In his years of service, Williams received minor complaints, but also received multiple commendations, according to his personnel file.
The child’s aunt claims that if Williams had followed procedure, the girl would still be alive.
Tyler Williams’ internal affairs investigation and list of violations
Although Williams’ criminal charge for failing to report suspected child abuse was dismissed in November, he remained on paid leave until the conclusion of the internal affairs investigation.
FMPD Lt. Brian O’Reily filed the initial complaint, claiming Williams, a mandatory reporter, failed to notify the Department of Children and Families of possible abuse, neglect or abandonment of a child during a traffic stop on Jan. 18, 2020, where officers found suspected heroin, methamphetamines, syringes and a 3-year-old girl in a vehicle, according to the internal affairs report.
O’Reily also claimed Williams failed to conduct a thorough preliminary investigation during the stop after discovering the child, suspected drugs and paraphernalia in the vehicle, in addition to failing to collect and document the suspected drugs and paraphernalia.
Sgt. Dan Losapio filed another complaint, claiming Williams inappropriately discarded the syringes by placing them in the vehicle’s driver’s side wheel well, the report states.
Investigators sustained the violations and supported firing Williams.
List of violations:
- G.O. 9.1, Section II, (A),(2): Obedience to laws, rules, ordinances and department directives: Employees shall comply with federal and state laws, city ordinances, rules and procedures, and departmental policies, rules, orders, and procedures.
- G.O. 20.9, Section I, (B): The officer conducting the Preliminary Investigation shall:
- Determine if an offense has actually been committed and, if so, the exact nature of the offense;
- Furnish other field units, through the communications system, descriptions, method and direction of flight, and other relevant information concerning wanted persons or vehicles;
- Locate and obtain complete identification of all witnesses;
- Determine what information is known by the victim and witnesses;
- Determine in detail the exact circumstances of the offense;
- Determine the identity of the suspect or suspects, and effect an arrest if it can be accomplished either at the scene or through immediate pursuit; arrest will be approved by the supervisor;
- Maintain crime scene, and protect and arrange for the collection of evidence;
- For crimes identified in Section II.B., establish a crime scene log documenting all personnel entering and exiting the crime scene, to include entry and exit time.
- Obtain written statements from victims and witnesses, and from the suspect, if such statement can be obtained legally;
- Accurately and completely record all pertinent information on the prescribed report forms. Submit all reports and/or statements to the appropriate supervisor for review prior to the end of the tour of duty.
- All personnel present on a major crime scene, regardless of their duties or assignment, are required to submit a supplement report detailing their activities prior to the end of their tour of duty.
- Make appropriate notifications to supervisors and divisions within the agency.
- G.O. 14.1, Section II, (N), (4) Documentation of Each Item Collected: All items of evidence that are collected by the individual processing the crime scene will be listed on a Property Report and Evidence Chain of Custody Form. For each item listed, the following information will be noted:
- A complete description of the item (including make, model, and serial numbers, if any).
- The source (from whom or location from which the item was obtained). This includes in the field transfer of custody of physical evidence.
- The name of the person collecting the item.
- G.O. 9.1, Section II, (A), (9) Performance of Duty: While on duty, employees shall devote their time and attention to the service of the city and the department, and shall direct and coordinate their effort in a manner that will establish and maintain the highest standard of efficiency.
Looking back: 3-year-old Serenity Robinson dies
A month after the traffic stop, the child, Serenity Robinson, died in a crash along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard when she was thrown from a silver Kia Sedona van.
Her mother was driving, and police say she was under the influence of narcotics.
Some blame Williams for Robinson’s death, claiming had he arrested her mother during the traffic stop, or reported the suspected child abuse, Robinson would still be alive.
On Feb. 20, 2020, Internal Affairs Major William Newhouse was notified of a phone call made by Robinson’s aunt, Kelly Schwartz, who wanted more information about the traffic stop because she had heard Williams found drugs in the vehicle, but made no arrest.
During the traffic stop, Williams had found several syringes, one which field tested positive for heroin, and a baggie of suspected crystal methamphetamine at 5 a.m., the report states.
Due to the internal affairs investigation findings, O’Reily submitted a case review of the traffic stop to the State Attorney’s Office on May 8, 2020, and after review, a formal arrest warrant was issued for Williams for the violation of Florida Statute 39.20591, Failure to Report Child Abuse, Abandonment, or Neglect (as a mandatory reporter).
On Nov. 2, 2020, the criminal case against Williams was dismissed, although the internal affairs investigation continued.
Investigators had reviewed Williams’ body-worn camera and dashboard camera.
The footage showed Williams conduct a traffic stop at 4:50 a.m. Jan. 18, 2020, near Cleveland and Colonial avenues. He approached the vehicle on the passenger side where he encountered Leslie Zeagler, who had a syringe next to her, the report states.
Williams had Zeagler get out of the vehicle and asked her if that was her daughter in the back seat, referring to 3-year-old Robinson.
He took the syringe and also had the driver, Carly Hartnett, get out of the vehicle, ordering them to sit on the curb in front of Williams’ patrol car.
Williams field tested the syringe, which was positive for heroin, and two back-up officers arrived. He found additional syringes in a purse inside the vehicle, stating “There’s more heroin in there,” to the other officers. He also found a baggie of suspected crystal methamphetamines under the purse on the center console.
As he went back to the driver’s side he placed the two syringes inside the driver’s side wheel well, the report states.
When Williams spoke with Zeagler and Hartnett again, he told them he had felony charges on them.
“I’ve got used needles in the purse, alright … there’s used needles all over the car, there’s used needles all over the car loaded with heroin inside, alright. I got a bag of crystal inside, OK. I’ve got a 3-year-old child inside the car, OK,” he said to the women.
Williams proceeded to tell them that hopefully they could change their habits, that he wasn’t saying he was going to take them to jail, but that they were going to have a “whole coming to Jesus” and that you can’t have felony narcotics in the same vehicle as a sleeping child.
“That little girl, it’s a beautiful little girl, she does not deserve that,” Williams said.
Also on the body-camera footage, Williams could be heard saying to Zeagler that he would not be sending the Department of Children and Families anywhere and that they would be getting out of there with the child and the car that night.
“This is a freebie I’m giving you, alright, I’m feeling gracious for some reason, I don’t know why, OK, and ultimately I really don’t feel like dealing with DCF at six o’clock in the morning, OK,” Williams told the women before he released them.
The investigation determined Williams documented the traffic stop, but did not provide any additional notes, only that a stop was made at 4:50 a.m., the vehicle’s tag number, that additional units were requested and driver’s license queries.
When Williams logged the suspected bag of methamphetamines into evidence he stated he found the bag at Colonial Boulevard and Solomon Road, then collected it and submitted the bag into evidence for destruction. He did not mention exactly where he located the bag, whether it was found on a person, in a vehicle or on the road.
The report also noted that Williams attended several training classes relating to investigations involving children, one of which instructed officers that they need to call DCF when reporting to a call that involves a crime involving a child.
Fort Myers police: Officer placed on leave after arrest by Lee County Sheriff’s Office
An aunt’s query
The investigation further showed that when Schwartz called asking about the traffic stop, she was told only a warning was issued. Schwartz became upset and claimed her niece would still be alive if someone had done more during the traffic stop, the report states.
Schwartz was also interviewed as part of the investigation, where she said she spoke with Zeagler about the traffic stop. Zeagler told her she was pulled over and police found drugs, but she didn’t go to jail. Zeagler told Schwartz that she was told, “it would be too much to get DCF involved.”
Schwartz also spoke with Williams about the traffic stop and asked him why he didn’t arrest anyone or call DCF.
She said he told her that he couldn’t make an arrest because of where the drugs were found and claimed he did call DCF, but it was taking too long for them to get there, the report states.
While she was on the phone with Williams, she merged their call with Robinson’s father, Randy Robinson, who was calling in from Lee County Jail. Randy Robinson also asked Williams the questions and Williams gave him the same answer, the report indicates.
O’Reilly emailed DCF during the investigation to confirm that Williams did not contact them about the traffic stop. DCF revealed the only reports on record involving Zeagler and Robinson were Aug. 24, 2016, and Oct. 31, 2019.
According to DCF, the last time Williams generated a report with them was on Sept. 21, 2017, and they confirmed he did not contact DCF in relation to the traffic stop on Jan. 18, 2020.
On Dec. 11, 2020, Williams was interviewed and his attorney Tim Culhane, of the Police Benevolent Association was present.
When asked why he did not call DCF, Williams stated he had no obligation to call based on the circumstances provided to him at the time of the traffic stop. He claimed that 3-year-old Robinson, was in no more immediate danger than a child in any household kitchen with knives, the report states.
He also said he couldn’t recall if he notified his supervisor of the drugs and paraphernalia and that he did not notify the Narcotics Division of his findings.
Williams stated he disposed the syringe in a sharps container because it was empty after he used what was inside the needle on field test kits, one came back positive and one came back negative.
Sharps containers are strong plastic containers used for safe needle disposal. It is common that police and emergency medical technicians are equipped with these containers.
He also denied locating or collecting any other drugs or syringes other than the bag of methamphetamines and the one loaded syringe.
When asked about placing two syringes in the rear wheel well of the vehicle, Williams said, “The only thing I can think of, if I did place them in the wheel well, would be that, I can’t remove them from the vehicle, because they are not evidence, they’re just unused needles at that point, which you can buy at a convenience store … and if I take their property, I am technically stealing at that point, and that would be no different than me taking her shoes or her cell phone out of the vehicle. But I don’t recall a, the needle being placed in the wheel well.”
On April 24, officer Carlos Ramos was interviewed because of his involvement as a back-up officer to Williams on Jan. 18, 2020.
Ramos said he recalled seeing a child in the back of the van sleeping in a car seat. He told investigators he couldn’t recall if there was any conversation about the traffic stop afterwards and that he didn’t know what Williams did with the syringe or why Williams didn’t call DCF, the report states.
On April 29, officer John Kuhl was interviewed because he also provided back-up to Williams during the traffic stop. He also said he did not know what Williams did with the syringe or why DCF was not called.
Ramos and Kuhl said they did not speak to Williams after the fatal crash involving the 3-year-old girl in February 2020, the report states.
Matt Sellers, president of Gulf Coast Police Benevolent Association, said Williams has been a member of the union and they are assisting him with attempts to have his employment reinstated.
“It’s our position that his termination is not based or supported by just cause,” Sellers said.
On Feb. 24, a day after Williams’ termination, they filed a grievance with FMPD stating that there was not just cause to terminate Williams and that this was a violation of his contract, which allows for discipline in different ways.
Sellers said this will eventually go to arbitration and it could take at least six months to a year, if not longer, to be resolved.