TPD officer cleared of wrong-doing in traffic stop

- A Tampa Police officer accused of excessive use of force was cleared by the department of wrongdoing, but TPD still may face legal action, the accuser and her attorney said Friday.

The incident started out as a routine traffic stop in November 2014, after an officer spotted vehicle with a tinted license plate cover.

The driver, Liz Vargas, said she had just dropped off her child at West Tampa Elementary School and was pulling into the parking lot to head into the school.

"I come out my car and there's a police car behind me and I did not know he was behind me," Vargas said.

The dashboard camera in the Officer Kevin Fitzpatrick was rolling as he approached Vargas' car, appearing initially to point toward her license plate.

The conversation, however, is inaudible and within 40-seconds, the officer can be seen trying to arrest Vargas, who screams. Fitzpatrick then forces her to the ground and a school resource officer runs over to help.

"He pushed me against my car and I told him 'you don't got the right to do this to me,'" she told FOX 13. "He grabbed me and actually slammed me or throws me on the ground, like I was a piece of garbage."

Earlier this week, TPD released the results of an Internal Affairs investigation which determined Fitzpatrick was justified.

According to the report, the officer had trouble restraining Vargas, so he called for backup. His radio, however, was not tuned to the correct frequency so there was no response to his call.

"Based [on] the fact that he attempted to call for back-up (sic) with negative results, the fact that the defendant did not stay in her vehicle during the traffic stop and the amount of difficulty he was having placing her into handcuffs in the standing position, I believe the officer felt he had no other option available other than to use a takedown maneuver," a police supervisor wrote in the report.

"Surprised and shocked," said Brett Szematowicz, Vargas' attorney. "Maybe I shouldn't have been, but I candidly was. I had a little more faith in the Tampa Police Department that they would address what led up to that."

TPD admits the conversation between the officer and driver should have been recorded; there's a microphone attached to the uniform, but it wasn't working.

"Our policies are that you're supposed to turn on your camera and your audio. The officer that morning checked his audio, it was not working, but he didn't take care of it immediately. So we sustained that he should have taken care of his radio. He was counseled verbally for that," Hegarty said, adding a "counseling" is not the same as a reprimand.

The State Attorney dropped the resisting arrest charge after Vargas completed community service.

She and her attorney are determining what their next move will be and whether they will file a lawsuit.

"We're weighing our options right now," Szematowicz said. "What we won't concede is that that officer's use of force was authorized and was appropriate."
 

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