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Lawtey police threatened to arrest a traffic stop bystander. What we can learn from the incident

(Lawtey Police Department)
(Lawtey Police Department)

Jessica Kreitzer was returning to Gainesville from the Jacksonville airport last month, driving through the familiar speed limit drops in Lawtey, when she noticed a young Black man pulled over by police in a gas station parking lot.

As she continued past, she thought of incidents she’d seen on the news that started the same way and ended with violence.

(In the same county – Bradford – a few months ago, a sheriff’s deputy pulled a gun on a pregnant Black woman during a traffic stop. In July, a Gainesville traffic stop ended with a Black man losing his eye after being mauled by a police K9.)

Kreitzer's church book club had been reading The New Jim Crow, studying statistics about mass incarceration and how certain people and neighborhoods are targeted.

She turned around and pulled into the station.

It’s not that she thought she was going to save the situation, she said. She just felt like somebody should be there.

“I’m not super savvy with this kind of thing,” Kreitzer said. “It’s not like this is something I do.”

After buying a water bottle, she approached the young man and asked if he was OK and felt safe.

“And immediately [the officers] both kind of went at me,” she said.

Body camera footage shows Officer Michael Starling approaching within feet of Kreitzer and using a raised voice.

"You're obstructing!"

Officer Robert Serafin took her identification and she backed away.

"You pay attention to him," Kreitzer told Starling, hands raised. "I'm just gonna stay here."

Watch the footage below.

She compared Starling's tone to an “intense military investigation where somebody might have a bomb or something.”

Even if she knew her rights, she later said, she thinks she would’ve caved to anything they said in that tone: “I did not expect at all the intensity.”

Lawtey Police Capt. Nathan Blom backed the officers’ response. He said Kreitzer could have observed from another area, but her direct interaction with the stopped person was distracting and did constitute an obstruction of justice. 

“Could the officer have been a little more tactful and professional?” Blom said. “Definitely, and I have addressed that.”

Kreitzer said she “felt silly” in retrospect for approaching the man directly, she just didn’t know what was and wasn’t OK. All the officers needed to do, she said, was tell her if she didn’t step eight to 10 feet away she’d be considered an obstruction of justice.

“I would have just walked away,” she said. “I was not looking for a confrontation.”

Kreitzer told Starling she would observe from farther back and walked to stand at the edge of the lot, but the officers followed and warned they’d arrest her if she didn’t drive away.

Kreitzer, baffled, said: “I guess you’ll have to arrest me then.”

Serafin slipped a handcuff around her left wrist.

Kreitzer’s stepfather, standing nearby, said they’d leave.

Kreitzer’s mother, who was watching from the car, said the incident “shook them to the core”; it was hard to sleep afterward.

Kreitzer said whenever she spoke of the interaction in the days that followed, she started shaking.

She began studying her rights on the American Civil Liberties Union website. She tried to file a complaint but was hesitant to use the button on the Lawtey Police Department’s website. Should she complain to the police about themselves?

“If this is normal behavior for them,” she said, “how many other times has this happened?”

David Thomas is a professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University. He retired from the Gainesville Police Department in 1998, after 20 years as an officer in various locations. He now offers consulting to police departments and testifies as an expert on use of force.

Thomas reviewed the body camera footage and told WUFT there were no problems until the bystander interjected.

Though the officers were “absolutely right in what they were saying,” Thomas said, “I was kind of taken aback by that response, because it was so nasty. It was so negative.”

Thomas was also concerned about possible bias indicated by a remark Starling made about people from Gainesville “wanting to save the world.”

Kretizer, Thomas said, was interfering, but the officers could have handled it "so much more tactfully."

“He could have just said, ‘Ma’am, I need you to stand over there, and I’ll talk to you when we’re done.’”

Blom said his officers receive training from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement but did not speak to whether it included de-escalation training and whether or not the officers’ words and actions reflected that training.

Thomas recommended people wanting to report a situation file a complaint first with the police department and then, if they feel it’s needed, with an outside organization like the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I think police have really become offended that the public is starting to pay attention to them,” Thomas said. “And they shouldn’t be, because basically that’s their employer.”

Thomas said public bystanders and their recording is one form of police oversight – something he described as absolutely necessary.

“Law enforcement without oversight is a very dangerous thing.”

What to know if you’re observing:

  • You have a first amendment right to stand, observe and record any police interactions on public property.
  • Stay at least eight to 10 feet back, silent and out of the direct view of the officers to avoid being considered a distraction or obstruction of justice.
  • You have the right to access all public records, including body camera footage, police reports and the personnel files of officers. The agency will likely quote you a price to cover the administrative costs of producing the records, but you can contest the price if you feel it’s higher than justified. 
  • You can file a complaint with the law enforcement agency. It’s typically the first step for an investigation into an officer to be considered. You can also report to an outside agency, like the American Civil Liberties Union.

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.