Deputy cleared in rough arrest of teen sues Broward sheriff. Were charges politically motivated?

A Broward Sheriff’s Office deputy was cleared after being accused of using excessive force in the arrest of a teen in 2019. Now, he is suing Sheriff Gregory Tony — and alleges that Tony used the controversy to advance his political career.

Last week, Sgt. Gregory LaCerra sued Tony; the agency’s professional standards director, Capt. John Hale; and Internal Affairs investigator Vincent Coldwell in Broward circuit court for allegedly conspiring to provide Tony with “political cover” during the sheriff’s 2020 reelection campaign, during which Tony boasted that he had acted against police brutality. LaCerra is seeking more than $100,000 in damages.

“The claims in this lawsuit lack merit, and the Broward Sheriff’s Office will address the allegations in a court of law,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

LaCerra, who has worked for the sheriff’s office for 24 years, was at the center of the arrest of a 16-year-old boy that was captured on cellphone video and condemned by national civil rights activists and many local community leaders. In the weeks after the incident, he was suspended from work and charged with misdemeanor battery and falsifying public records, though the charges were later dismissed.

The incident happened on April 18, 2019, when dozens of students from J.P. Taravella Senior High School gathered at a nearby parking lot in Tamarac in anticipation of a fight. When an officer took a teen who had been previously involved in an altercation to the ground, the teen dropped his cellphone.

READ MORE: Broward fires deputy over rough arrest of teen. Union says sheriff overstepping authority.

Another student captured what happened next. When Delucca Rolle, 16, leaned down to pick up the phone, he was grabbed by LaCerra, who pepper-sprayed the teen.

Then, Det. Christopher Krickovich got on top of Delucca as he was face down and slammed his head into the ground, the video shows.

The deputies were cleared of wrongdoing by a professional review board and, later, in the courts.

“Nevertheless, Defendants chose to cave to the court of public opinion, while Tony was running for election, and vilify [LaCerra] professionally and personally, crushing his professional and personal reputation and holding both [LaCerra] and his entire family up to public ridicule and humiliation, as well as placing their lives in danger,” the filing says.

Probe ends with charges

In the lawsuit, attorney Tonja Haddad Coleman states that there was “documented proof” that LaCerra had done what he was trained to do and hadn’t violated any policy or training protocols. A BSO use-of-force expert even reviewed the footage and told Tony — and other sheriff’s office officials — that LaCerra’s and Krickovich’s actions were “completely consistent” with the policy manual and training the agency provides, according to the lawsuit.

But a day after that conversation, LaCerra and Krickovich were placed on restricted duty — and the Broward State Attorney’s Office soon launched a criminal probe into the duo, according to the filing. They were suspended with pay shortly after.

The incident then began to garner national attention. In late April of 2019, someone posted the deputies’ addresses on social media, and they were harassed for weeks, with more than 100 threats that were investigated, the filing says.

In June, civil rights attorney Ben Crump held a press conference at the Broward Public Defender’s Office, where he vowed to organize a rally if the deputies weren’t held accountable.

“This young boy was the victim of a brutal and unjustifiable attack by Broward law enforcement officers who were sworn to protect him,” Crump said at the time.

A month later, the deputies were charged and suspended without pay.

Investigator Coldwell continued the internal affair inquiry and sent the case to the Broward Professional Standards Committee, a county oversight group, without a statement from LaCerra or the teen, the lawsuit alleges. In September 2019, the board — made up of both civilians and members of law enforcement — recommended that LaCerra be cleared of wrongdoing.

He was placed back on restricted duty that month, though that same day, he received an email from the sheriff’s office telling him that Hale and Tony were suspending him without pay for three days.

Krickovich, though also exonerated by the board, was fired. LaCerra’s lawsuit notes that Krickovich reached a settlement with the sheriff’s office. Krickovich was reinstated with back pay last year.

‘Politics prevailed’

A series of text messages included in the filing show sheriff’s office officials discussing the agency’s actions toward the two deputies after their arrests.

“Hey, politics prevailed in this one. He’ll get his job back and everyone knows that,” one of the officials wrote, seemingly referring to LaCerra.

Then, in June 2020, Tony released a video for his reelection campaign in which he referenced the open criminal cases against the deputies.

“I took on police brutality,” the sheriff said in the ad. “I fired the bad cops.”

Defense attorneys for LaCerra and Krickovich, according to the lawsuit, sent Tony a letter urging him to uphold his “legal obligation” to protect the “rights of all citizens above your political ends.”

The ad was still played, however.

“These false statements were brazenly put out there by Tony and remain in the public domain today, with no remedy available to [LaCerra] but to commence this lawsuit,” Haddad Coleman said in the filing.

In October of 2020, the misdemeanor battery charges against LaCerra were dismissed by Judge Jill K. Levy.

Prosecutors in June 2022 dropped LaCerra’s misdemeanor charges of falsifying public records, court records show. The sergeant was allowed to return to full duty shortly after.

LaCerra’s attorneys believe that Tony conspired with Hale and Coldwell from Internal Affairs — presenting “false and fabricated evidence” — to try to convict LaCerra of a crime they knew he didn’t commit.

“These Defendants were attempting to bolster Tony’s political ambitions, and to curry favor with the community, at the expense of Plantiff’s freedom and liberty, causing false accusations to be accepted as credible, and which resulted in a years-long investigation that led nowhere at every turn for over two years,” the filing says.