■ I think they’re extremely lucky to leave Marco breathing. I think the cop’s only mistake was not using enough Mace.
— Frank Recker, an attorney and vice chairman of the Marco Island City Council, defending the actions of Marco officer Stephen Mariani.
A Marco Island police officer is back on the beat after a battery investigation that included a video that a law enforcement expert said would “shock” the public.
Officer Stephen Mariani, 50, is seen striking and pepper spraying handcuffed men in the back of his patrol car in a videotape acquired through a public records request last week by The Daily News. An edited version of the video is available at naplesnews.com.
Mariani was ordered to take six months of anger management classes in a criminal plea agreement for the incident that occurred in February. The Marco Island Police Department suspended Mariani without pay for two weeks, assigned him to desk duty for 5½ months and placed him on probation for six months, ending Feb. 22, 2009.
He returned to active duty Aug. 22.
Marco Island Police Chief Thom Carr is glad to have him back.
“Absolutely,” Carr said. “He’s an excellent officer. To be honest with you, Officer Mariani was in line for a promotion to a corporal, but obviously that’s not going to happen now.”
The case against Mariani stems from a videotape captured from his police cruiser from the early morning of Feb. 17, 2008, when Mariani attempted to transport three suspects to the Naples Jail Center following a drunken melee outside a Marco Island comedy club.
The half-hour video shows Mariani striking two of the men, pepper spraying all three and leaving them inside the car screaming and crying for air.
Reaction to Mariani’s actions was strong and varied.
Charles Mesloh, an associate professor in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Division of Justice Studies, and Frank Recker, an attorney and vice chairman of the Marco Island City Council, both watched the videotape.
Mesloh said Mariani’s actions, particularly striking handcuffed prisoners, were indefensible. He expected public reaction to the video would be swift.
“I think they’re going to be shocked, because I was,” said Mesloh, who worked for 12 years in the city of Venice Police Department. “I cannot read the officer’s mind, I have no idea why he took the action he did. I can tell you it is excessive force.”
Mesloh also said that Mariani “made a really bad choice ... and he let three bad guys pull him down.”
Recker said the only crime he saw resulting from the video was that Mariani was charged with one. Recker called the three suspects in the backseat “out of control primates.” If Recker was in Mariani’s shoes, he said, the three men would have “been in a lot worse shape.”
“I think they’re extremely lucky to leave Marco breathing,” Recker said. “I think the cop’s only mistake was not using enough Mace.”
Police reports tell this story of an incident before the tape starts rolling.
By 11:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16, three men — Christopher Caprari, 21, and Adrian Polanco, 20, of East Naples and Anthony Blanco, 18, of Marco Island — had been kicked out of a club along with about 20 other friends there for a birthday party. The three eventually began brawling with Mariani and an off-duty Marco Island officer on the scene. A civilian jumped into the fray on the police’s side. A fourth member of their party, Jason Bocardo, 19, of East Naples kicked out a patrol car window and was transported to the hospital after he was pepper sprayed and complained of having difficulty breathing. Bocardo later was taken to jail.
Nine separate sworn witness statements said the police used appropriate force, including pepper spray, outside the club to gain control. All four men had prior criminal records.
Caprari, Polanco and Blanco were driven two miles to the city police station. Mariani’s supervisor, Cpl. Jason Nachtrab, ordered him to take the three on the half-hour drive to jail. Nachtrab also ordered the car’s camera turned on and directed toward the backseat with Caprari on the passenger’s side, Blanco in the middle and Polanco on the driver’s side, all handcuffed and jostling inside.
The video — stamped with both the time and date — begins at 12:44 a.m.
At the start, the three begin verbally harassing Mariani, threatening to fight him and bouncing around the backseat.
“Who the (expletive) do you think you are, (Collier County Sheriff) Don Hunter?” Blanco asks. “You ain’t (expletive).”
Blanco then repeatedly calls Mariani a “rent-a-cop.”
Mariani appears to be calm and says little, or nothing, audible.
Then less than two minutes after the ride begins and less than a mile away from where he started, Mariani stops the car, exits and opens the back door.
Mariani strikes Polanco in the face at least three times before climbing over him to punch Blanco’s face.
“Shut the (expletive) up,” Mariani says before hitting Blanco.
Mariani closes the door with Polanco kicking and all three screaming at him.
They stop and one prisoner yells, “He’s going to Mace us, chill!” They duck.
“Ready?” Mariani asks.
He discharges pepper spray into the vehicle. Twenty seconds after the first burst, Mariani sprays again.
“Deep breaths,” Mariani repeats. “Deep breaths.”
For the next eight minutes, the three men remain in the car thrashing, yelling obscenities at Mariani and begging for relief. All three repeat that they can’t breathe. Blanco bangs his head over and over against the Plexiglas partition dividing the back seat from the car’s front.
Mariani drives back to the police department parking lot. He opens the back door and hoses the prisoners down with water while they remain seated in the car.
Polanco begins reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
“Amen, Lord,” he concludes. “Help us please in this situation, Lord. Please help.”
Blanco and Polanco ask for more water.
After seven more minutes, a Marco Island officer on scene in the parking lot, John Derrig, is heard requesting Collier County Emergency Medical Services assistance for treatment from pepper spray.
Mariani eventually opens the door next to Caprari, who is sobbing. Polanco yells for someone to open his door. Derrig opens it and tells the three to relax and take small breaths. The officers again close both doors.
The three suspects continue to hurl insults at Mariani and other officers.
It takes another six minutes for the ambulance and Collier County Sheriff’s Office deputies to arrive for backup.
By 1:15 a.m., the three men exit the car. Reports say the sheriff’s deputies removed them and EMS comes shortly afterward.
The Monday morning following the incident, Carr said, Mariani went to then-Marco Island Police Chief Roger Reinke and told Reinke he messed up.
In the internal investigation that followed, Mariani told detectives his supervisor Nachtrab had requested he transport all three suspects in the same car to the Naples Jail Center, even though Mariani said it was a bad idea. While driving, Mariani believed the suspects were so unruly they, “might break out of the windows and possibly escape.”
After he pepper sprayed the three men, Mariani said he rolled down the windows in the car and turned the air conditioner on high. He didn’t wash out the faces of the suspects sooner because there was too much pepper spray in the car to drive, and Nachtrab agreed. Mariani didn’t remove the prisoners from the car because he believed it wasn’t safe because of their violent behavior, and Nachtrab again agreed.
All three men faced multiple charges after the incident.
Blanco was charged with resisting an officer with violence, disorderly intoxication, criminal mischief and battery on a law enforcement officer. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor disorderly intoxication, was adjudicated guilty and sentenced to six months probation.
Caprari was charged with battery, resisting an officer with violence, disorderly intoxication and battery on a law enforcement officer. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery, was adjudicated guilty and sentenced to six months probation.
Polanco was charged with battery, resisting arrest with violence, disorderly intoxication and battery on a law enforcement officer. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor disorderly intoxication was adjudicated guilty and sentenced to time served.
The remaining charges against the three men were dropped.
The local State Attorney’s Office served Mariani with a summons for misdemeanor battery in June.
In September, prosecutors worked out a deferred prosecution agreement with Mariani where he’s required to undergo six months of anger management classes. If he completes the classes, his criminal prosecution has ended, State Attorney’s Office Spokeswoman Samantha Syoen said.
The penalty is typical for a first-time offender with no criminal history, like Mariani, she said.
Prosecutors looked at all the evidence in the case including the videotape and the victims’ conduct.
Mariani’s personnel file shows this incident as the only administrative action taken against him since he began working for Marco’s police department in May 2006, after retiring from a 20-year career as a sergeant with the New York City Police Department. Mariani collects $52,023 a year.
He could not be reached for comment.
Carr said there were many problems with the way Mariani and the department handled the situation.
When asked what Mariani could have done differently, Carr replied, “probably not lose his cool.”
But other decisions were also at fault, Carr said. He said Mariani never should have been the officer transporting the suspects to jail after he had just fought them at the comedy club. He also said the suspects should have been separated before transporting them as well.
Nachtrab, Mariani’s supervisor, was also disciplined for showing “poor judgment,” Carr said. The department has instituted new policies in the wake of the incident and officers involved in fights with still rowdy suspects will no longer transport them. Also, the department will make more use of Collier County’s jail wagons.
“It’s been a learning experience for everyone on the department,” Carr said.
Mariani still faces further disciplinary action from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The FDLE will hold a hearing on Mariani’s incident in December. Carr expected FDLE would find probable cause to investigate the matter, and he hoped the agency thought the discipline Carr administered to be sufficient.
The most severe penalty Mariani faces through FDLE action is the loss of his law enforcement certification.
Recker said he would consider drafting a letter and urging Marco Island City Council to draft a letter to support Mariani during his FDLE hearing.
“Thanks, officer,” Recker said. “That’s what I would say as a city councilor. You were doing your job.”
Carr said he realized the images people could now have of Marco Island’s police department might come from this video.
“Do I think that’s a good image? No, not at all,” Carr said of the department, which started in 2000. “But that’s not the image that’s on Marco. We’re into nine years now, and that’s the first time something like that has happened.”