Smearing Three Dead Teenagers

The drowning deaths of three Florida teenagers, caught on video, have their families asking whether police on the scene could have done more to save them — and why the authorities are smearing their children’s names in death.

Sixteen-year-old Dominique Battle and 15-year-old Ashaunti Butler and Laniya Miller drowned in the early morning hours of March 31 after the car the three were riding in crashed into a pond, and they were unable to escape. The girls had allegedly stolen the car from a Walmart parking lot, though their families dispute this.

Despite the fact that county sheriff’s rules forbid deputies from chasing stolen vehicles, at least some officers were reportedly pursuing the teens when the car ran off the road and crashed. Police, however, claim that their flashing lights were not on, and that the girls did not know they were being followed.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has defended the actions of officers on the scene, saying officers had taken off their gun belts and attempted to rescue the girls by wading into the water, but that thick muddy water made a rescue impossible and forced them to turn back. Other reports suggested that police believed the girls had escaped the vehicle and run away.

But newly released dashboard camera footage has many questioning those assertions — and the girls’ families are demanding answers.

The footage shows police standing by and doing nothing as the car sinks into the pond with the teens still inside. In the footage, the officers comment about the car “going down” while the girls yell for help. At one point, a helicopter hovers above, and the officers comment, “They are done, they are 6-7, dude. They are done.” At no point during this critical time did officers appear to call for medical help.

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Just as disturbing is the way in which authorities have gone out of their way to play up the alleged criminal behavior of the young victims, smearing them as juvenile delinquents.

On the day of their deaths, the St. Petersburg Sheriff’s office held a press conference with professionally made poster boards of the scene where the three drowned — and enlarged mug shots of the young women. The police and media proceeded to drag the girls’ names through the mud, blaming the root of the problem as coming from “deep within the [Black] community.”

In a public statement, Sherriff Gualtieri said:

I understand the pain and agony that the families are going through. I empathize with their situation. They are grasping at straws to try to reconcile this and figure this out. Maybe even going through some self-reflection on what they could have done or should have done to keep their 15-year-old daughter from being out at 4 a.m. and stealing cars and engaging in crime.

In classic style, the police seem to believe that by playing up the alleged criminal pasts of these young Black girls, the public will be led to believe that they alone are responsible for their deaths and stop asking questions about the role of police.

This narrative is another in a long line of police and politicians smearing young Black men and women — including Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown — as “no angels” and therefore somehow complicit in their own deaths. The aim is to make the public turn a blind eye to the deaths of “criminalized” Black people, rather than ask questions about racism and police misconduct.

In a press conference, Will Anderson and Michele Whitfield, attorneys for the family of Laniya Miller, denounced the police’s attempt to discredit the girls in the eyes of the public as a “rush to judgment” and “smear campaign.” They also described their own investigation of the events that led to the girls’ deaths, pointing out inconsistencies and questions, and calling for a thorough investigation.

According to Whitfield, “The story that the law enforcement officials were providing for the public did not match the scene.” The attorneys have encouraged members of the press to conduct their own investigations of the scene and the official report of events from the police.

Whitfield also commented on the campaign to discredit the dead girls:

It was very convenient for law enforcement to put together a story, to manipulate a story about these girls’ past, about what they may or may not have done. And in the case of Laniya Miller, she had no criminal convictions. She was accused of stealing a vehicle and those charges were dismissed…and what hasn’t been reported about Laniya is that because of her involvement with the criminal justice system she wanted to become an attorney. She wanted to fight for kids that were in her position that were accused and maybe didn’t have anyone to fight for them.

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The families of Dominique, Ashaunti, and Laniya want answers. Among the questions are: What connection was there between the girls and the 36-year-old man who gave them a ride earlier in the evening and reportedly knew the owner of the car that was allegedly stolen? What evidence do the police have that the girls actually stole the car? Why has the owner of the vehicle not yet been questioned by police? Why are there so many inconsistencies in police reports? Why have the police have been so willing to slander the young women in the media while being simultaneously unwilling to provide the families with answers?

Laniya’s mother commented on how she would like people to remember her daughter: “Laniya was the type of person to give her friends the clothes off of her back. Whenever she was making herself something to eat, I knew she was making food for someone else. Sometimes she would pretend she was hungry just so that she could sneak food to some of her friends who didn’t have what she had.”

Dominique’s mother Yashica spoke to the press briefly to defend her daughter’s name, only to be interrupted by a journalist asking her how many cars her daughter had stolen. Attorney Whitfeld interjected and reminded the journalists that the idea that the car was stolen was being disputed. “Even though Dominique may have had a little bit more of a criminal history…if you steal a car in the state of Florida, you don’t get the death penalty,” Whitfield said. “And that is what happened. These girls died.”

As long as we live in a country where 15- and 16-year-old Black women can drown while being pursued by police, and no one bats an eye, we must demand justice.