Guest opinion: An opportunity lost

It seems clear from the accounts of Nicholas’ behavior that there was an…

Guest opinion: An opportunity lost 1
Guest opinion: An opportunity lost 2

Hugh Starnes
 |  Special to The News-Press

Around the hour of midnight, on September 17, 2020, Nicholas Morales Besanilla woke his 12 year old son, who he was parenting on his own.  His wife had died some time ago from cancer.  He told his son he was seeing spirits and demons.  Nicolas then went outside.  He banged on a neighbor’s door holding a shovel and shouted to let him in.  She did not recognize him, and, fearful, called the Collier County Sheriff’s office and 911. 

When three Deputies arrived, they got out of their patrol cars and saw Nicholas walking from behind a parked car.  He was shirtless, barefooted, and wearing only shorts. A farm worker in Immokalee, his ancestry was from the indigenous tribes of the Mexican Highlands, and carried the trait of standing barely above 5 feet tall. 

His native language was Spanish.  An account by the deputies said he held a shovel. There is some reference to him holding or picking up a “shiny” object, which turned out to be a small pair of garden shears. He was confronted by three deputies, one with a canine assist. 

They formed a sort of perimeter in the street/driveway of the farmworker complex.  All had their revolvers drawn. The deputy with the canine holstered his gun and prepared to unleash his canine. Another deputy took steps toward Nicholas, and shouted: “Don’t come over here” and “get on the ground, get on the ground!”  Nicholas was walking to the side of this deputy, who continued to walk forward. Nicholas appears to have walked more towards the deputy shouting at him.

More: State Attorney’s Office: No charges vs. Collier deputy who fatally shot Immokalee man

Very quickly, the deputy shoots four shots at Nicholas. Three hit him in the abdominal area, and he falls to the ground, moaning. The shooting deputy maintains his stance, arms extended with the firearm pointed towards Nicholas. Meanwhile the released canine attacks and bites Nicholas on the shoulder, continuing his attack for about two minutes before the deputy who unleashed him can get his canine to release the bite hold on Nicholas. All the while, Nicholas writhes and moans in agony. EMS is called and comes to give emergency aid. A short time later, Nicholas dies of the gunshot wounds.

All of the above incident was being recorded on video from the two patrol cars’ dash cams.  Repeated requests by the family of Nicholas and their attorney, community organizations, and  concerned citizens and neighbors of Nicholas, all of whom wanted the most reliable account of the tragic incident, fell on deaf ears. Five months later, on a Friday afternoon, without any advance notice to the family, the Sheriff released the videos and an investigative report and finding of the State Attorney, who found the shooting was a justifiable homicide.

It seems clear from the accounts of Nicholas’ behavior that there was an indication of mental disturbance of some sort. Nowhere in the findings appears any serious examination of the best law enforcement practices in dealing with such an incident, in spite of the fact that the Sheriff’s website touts Crisis Intervention Training and practices for dealing with possible mental health episodes by using de-escalation techniques.

An objective member of the community would have to wonder: Why withhold the video evidence for five months? Why the lack of transparency?  An obvious question would be: Was it because the video evidence did not support the narrative law enforcement was presenting?

This is a sequence which has been repeated around the nation many times, provoking community outrage, and protests.  It seldom ends well for law enforcement’s relations with the citizens they serve.

I wonder why?

For more information on the death of Nicholas Morales Besanilla, visit the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website at https://ciw-online.org/blog/2021/02/as-he-lay-dying/

Hugh Starnes, Fort Myers, recently retired Senior Judge from the 20th Judicial Circuit of Florida.

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