ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Attorneys representing the parents of Salaythis Melvin, a 22-year-old man fatally shot in the back by an Orange County deputy in plain clothes, are demanding Sheriff John Mina make immediate policy changes to the department’s use of force policy.
Lawyers Bradley Laurent and Carlus Haynes spoke to reporters Wednesday the morning after Mina won the primary election for a chance to serve a second term as sheriff and the body camera video of Melvin’s shooting was released.
The attorneys said they plan to file a civil lawsuit against the sheriff and the department for wrongful death.
Orange County Sheriff’s Office Agent James Montiel opened fire on Salaythis Melvin on Aug. 7 outside the Florida Mall as the 22-year-old was running away, video shows.
The sheriff said the incident began shortly after noon when deputies tried to approach a group of four individuals outside Dick’s Sporting Goods because one of the men had an active warrant for his arrest and was also a person of interest in a triple shooting that occurred on Powers Ridge Court in Pine Hills last month. That warrant was not for Melvin and deputies did not know who he was, even asking his name in the body camera video.
When deputies approached, the 22-year-old ran away and toward Montiel, according to the deputy’s account, who got out of his unmarked vehicle and saw Melvin holding a stolen Glock handgun. Deputies did not know the weapon was stolen until after the shooting, according to the attorneys for Melvin’s family.
Melvin died of a single gunshot wound to the back, according to the Sheriff’s Office. He was running away from the deputy when he was shot, the video shows.
The attorneys are demanding Mina make a policy change that bans shooting a fleeing suspect and makes officers “think twice” before pulling the trigger.
“First, he’s got to make it a policy that anybody that’s fleeing, you cannot shoot them in the back,” Haynes said, adding “It’s not ... deer season. We’re not shooting people in the back, period.”
The video shows deputies involved in the operation were driving unmarked vehicles and in plain clothes. Montiel was not wearing anything that would identify him as a law enforcement officer until after the shooting, the attorneys said the video shows.
The videos do not show the full interaction and it’s hard to tell if Montiel had on anything identifying him as a Sheriff’s Office employee. In the video he is in a black t-shirt and tan shorts.
“Sheriff Mina, is this a good policy to have unmarked vehicles and unmarked officers, serving arrest warrants?” Haynes asked.
Both attorneys questioned the timing of when the body camera video was released.
A spokesperson for the sheriff’s Office said they were notified Tuesday the FDLE completed its last initial interview. Laurent said the Sheriff’s Office told them around 3 p.m. they were releasing the video, however, they did not receive the video until about 6 p.m., about an hour before polls closed on Florida’s primary election night, two weeks after the shooting.
“To release it at that time it seems pretty obvious it was a strategic decision,” Laurent said.
The Sheriff’s Office denies the timing was intentional.
“In regards to the speculation of the timing of such release related to Sheriff Mina’s election is completely inaccurate and speculative,” a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office said.
News 6 asked the sheriff’s office to explain the process it took to release the videos and we’re waiting for a response.
A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said the video was released after the state agency finished initial interviews Tuesday around noon.
“We completed the initial interviews (Tuesday). While our investigation is active, we are unable to provide additional information. Our role is to conduct a complete and thorough investigation as it relates to the law enforcement officer’s use of force,” FDLE said in an email. “Once our investigation is complete, we provide that information to the state attorney who makes the charging decisions. Our investigation is considered ‘active’ until the State Attorney’s Office renders their findings.”
During an election news conference on Tuesday, Mina said the Sheriff’s Office is waiting for the FDLE investigation to be complete before making any decisions about the deputy involved.
“This agency and other Central Florida agencies made this decision a long time ago to have an independent unit investigate our police shootings and that’s what we have done, so it is their investigation,” Mina said. “We want to let them handle their investigation but because of the public interest in this case, we made a decision in this agency that we would release body cam video.”
Laurent and Haynes said the deputy who shot Melvin should have been suspended without pay or fired until the investigation is complete.
“I would have liked to hear him come out and say, ‘This was a bad shooting. This deputy has been fired,’ but yet he wants to tell everybody in Orlando that he’s doing the right thing and he’s being fully transparent,” Haynes said. “Well, we do know that there’s a lot of video and audio that we’re missing ... how transparent is that?”
The attorneys are asking Mina to change the policy that allows deputies involved in shooting to review body camera video before providing their statements. They’re also calling on any deputy involved in a shooting to be suspended without pay.
The six body camera videos released Tuesday night do not include any from the deputy who shot Melvin. The attorneys said they have not been given any reason why Montiel’s body camera was not activated or on at the time.
“We haven’t been given a reason why there isn’t any camera footage from the shooter’s perspective or vantage point,” Laurent said.
Melvin’s parents, Michelin McKee and Ryan Findley, released a statement the day after the video was released. While their attorneys have described what they saw, the parents said they have not been able to bring themselves to watch the video of their son’s last moments.
They thanked the sheriff for releasing the video but asked that Melvin’s death not be in vain.
“Promise us, and the citizens of Orange County that no one -- be they black or white, young or old, Baptist or Catholic -- be gunned down in the manner our son was,” McKee and Findley said in a statement.
Both attorneys echoed that sentiment and said they will continue to seek more transparency from the sheriff and asked the community do the same.
“If you want to bring any value to this man’s life after his death, do not let Sheriff Mina off the hook,” Haynes said.