Suspended Broward County Sheriff's Deputy Peter Peraza, the first Broward cop indicted for killing a civilian in 35 years, pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges at the Broward County Courthouse at about 9:50 this morning. Just as he did after a hearing in December, Peraza emerged from a the courtroom and was immediately enveloped by about 30 cheering supporters.
The group, including many off-duty cops, has pledged to pack Peraza's court hearings to show their support. Today, some supporters showed up wearing homemade "I Support Deputy Peraza" t-shirts. The shirts also bore the slogan "All Lives Matter," a phrase which black rights activists around the country — and President Obama — say ignores real issues that plague people of color.
Last month, a grand jury charged Peraza with killing Jermaine McBean, a 33-year-old computer engineer living in Oakland Park. After a 911 caller told police a man was walking through an apartment complex holding a rifle, three officers arrived on the scene.
From there, the accounts Peraza and the McBean family give differ. Peraza told a sheriff's investigator that when police arrived, the cops began screaming at McBean, and that he refused to respond to police. Peraza said McBean then pointed the rifle at the cops. Peraza said he then began to fear for his life, and allegedly had no choice but to shoot and kill McBean. Despite the fact that the gun turned out to be an unloaded air rifle, Peraza was later given a bravery award for his actions that day.
Police said that at the hospital after the shooting, McBean a pair of headphones were found in his pocket. But in 2015, a photograph surfaced of McBean lying dead on the ground with the earbuds still in his ears, raising the possibility that he could not hear police shouting at him and that someone had tampered with the body, moving earbuds from his head to his pockets.
McBean family lawyer David Schoen, speaking after the hearing today, said that an eyewitness who had followed McBean "the entire time," insists McBean never pointed the gun at anyone. Secondly, even if McBean had brandished the gun, Peraza would have been the last of the three officers to fall into the line of fire, Schoen said.
Schoen then criticized the group of supporters who have rallied around Peraza. "Everyone understands solidarity with a friend, a friend that you're on the street with, that sort of thing," he said. "Here, though, we have a campaign that's gone on." He then called the shooting a tragedy. "How unseemly to have law enforcement taking the other side — when they're sworn to protect and serve, and enforce what the grand jury has done."
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Peraza's lawyer, Eric Schwartzreich said his client was innocent, and that pressure to indict police for killing civilians makes communities across the country less safe. He also said one eyewitness said McBean had been acting like a "zombie" before being shot.
"Black lives, blue lives, all lives matter," he added.
Jesse Cosme, an organizer with Black Lives Matter in Broward County, said Schwartzreich's decision to characterize McBean as a zombie echoed a long history of attempts to "monsterize" black, male victims of violence, like Michael Brown or Tamir Rice.
"I find it a bit hypocritical that people in All Lives Matter t-shirts are applauding that someone ended the life of another," he told New Times.