OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. — There will be no charges for the Osceola County deputy who was caught on cell phone video slamming a 16-year-old to the ground, knocking her unconscious.
Deputy Ethan Fournier was trying to help break up a verbal confrontation between the 16-year-old and a schoolmate at Liberty High School in January 2021.
State Attorney Monique Worrell said the incident started with a verbal dispute between two girls at the school, and two deans had tried to diffuse the situation, but the 16-year-old continued to advance toward the other student, who complied with commands to retreat. The 16-year-old student did not.
“Fournier grabbed her arms from behind her in an attempt to place her under arrest. She pulled away and Fournier executed a controlled takedown of the student,” Worrell said.
A controlled takedown is a trained law enforcement technique used to gain control of someone they intend to arrest.
“Let me be clear, this decision is based solely on the law,” Worrell said. “Although Officer Fournier’s actions were legal and in accordance with Florida law, as a parent and a member of this community, when I watched this video, I was angry and concerned for the safety and well-being of my own children and all children.”
Worrell said once the Florida Department of Law Enforcement finished its investigation, it was turned over to the newly formed Officer Involved Critical Incident Team (OICI), within the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s office, and that team is responsible for reviewing all officer involved critical incidents in Orange and Osceola counties.
“The OICI team’s review serves as an additional layer of protection to make sure the review is through, conclusions reached are sound in light of the applicable law,” Worrell said.
Officer use of force is governed under Florida State Law. A law enforcement officer, it states, need not retreat, or desist from efforts to make a lawful arrest because of resistance or threatened resistance to the arrest. And the officer is justified in the use of force, which he or she believes to be reasonably necessary to defend himself or another from bodily harm, while making an arrest.
“I think it’s up to constituents of this circuit to determine whether they believe they want to discuss with their legislators whether they want that to be the law,” Worrell stated.
Investigative Reporter Daralene Jones spoke with the family attorney, Natalie Jackson, who is representing the child’s family along with nationally known civil rights attorney Ben Crump.
“I know the parents’ reaction, they’re very disappointed that this officer is not being charged,” Jackson said. “From a legal standpoint, we are not surprised. It is very hard to get criminal charges against officers, even an officer who brutally slams a young girl to the ground. Florida doesn’t have a uniform state policy of what officers should do when they are working in schools. They don’t have any training on that with kids. So, I think we need to address the legislators and ask them to repeal the 2018 law that requires officers in schools.”
The incident prompted the Osceola County School district to convene a task force to review its contract and policies regarding the use of school resource officers in schools. When 9-Investigates dug into the issue in January, we found there were no uniform policies related to officer intervention in school discipline issues. The contracts or agreements districts have with local law enforcement and use of school resource officers doesn’t address use of force against students.
The Osceola task force produced a list of recommendations for the school district and a 44-page report, but most of its recommendations didn’t make it into a new contract with the law enforcement agencies with a presence at its schools in Osceola County, Kissimmee, and St. Cloud.
One of the recommendations was body cameras and when asked about it shortly after the news conference to announce no charges would be filed against the deputy, Osceola Sheriff Mario Lopez said the department would not be issuing cameras to school resources officers because the school district would have to figure out how to fund that. Lopez said his priority is issuing cameras to deputies on routine patrol because they have the most interaction with the public.
Worrell said cameras in this case would’ve provided more transparency and she also called for better training.
“There were no specific findings or recommendations regarding SRO use of force in the task force report” Worrell said.
She said she was surprised to learn that there is no specific training that differentiates the force that is used when intervening in confrontations involving children from the force that is used in confrontations involving adults.
“The national reckoning over police violence prohibits many students from feeling safe in the presence of law enforcement,” Worrell said. “The presence of officers in the hallways has a profound impact on students of color and those with disabilities.”
Kissimmee Police have since started training differently when it comes to use of force against children. The department trains its officers, using children, so that officers can get an idea of the difference force that should be used when handling children versus adults.
Deputy Fournier, who was also a coach at the high school and serves in many volunteer capacities within the Osceola County community, said he was relieved to learn he wouldn’t be charged. For the first time since the incident, he explained that he had tried to work with the 16-year-old student and get her involved in sports to stay out of trouble. “He’s a great cop,” Sheriff Lopez said.
The deputy had been on paid administrative leave, but Sheriff Lopez said it will be up to him if he wants to return to the school setting or continue to help the department with a new mental health program. When asked if he had a response to the civil lawsuit the family now promises to file, Sheriff Lopez said, “bring it.”
In a statement, Attorney Ben Crump, who also represents the family promised to continue to seek justice through a civil lawsuit.
“The facts of this case are laid out for everyone to see in that disturbing video,” Crump said. “A Black teenager was violently body-slammed to the ground, knocked unconscious, and handcuffed at her own school by Deputy Fournier. That kind of force is aggressive, unacceptable, and not at all what it looks like to de-escalate a situation between high school girls. Taylor is still feeling the repercussions from Fournier’s actions and likely will for the rest of her life. This disgusting incident certainly sends a message to our young people of color – police officers should not be trusted and ‘protect and serve’ is nothing more than a meaningless slogan. While the state attorney has failed to get justice for Taylor, we won’t stop until we do.”