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JSO officer who punched man in Walmart has been investigated 6 times

JSO Officer Samuel Watters during an incident inside a Northside Walmart.
JSO Officer Samuel Watters during an incident inside a Northside Walmart. (Screenshot via Facebook)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An officer with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office who punched a man in the face inside a Walmart before arresting him has previously been investigated six times by the Internal Affairs Section.

According to documents obtained by News4Jax, Officer Samuel Watters was most recently given a written reprimand in 2018 for improper action. It was not immediately clear exactly what the improper action was, but News4Jax has requested the case file.

The other five incidents involving Watters were all chargeable traffic crashes, according to JSO. Watters has since received counseling, reprimands, remedial training and eight hours of driver improvement class.

Watters was off duty Sunday when he arrested a Jacksonville man after a scuffle inside a Northside Walmart.

According to an arrest report released by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the incident began when an employee at the Walmart at River City Marketplace told security that Yoel Rodriguez, 43, and his family refused to leave the store after it had closed.

Watters, who according to the report was working in an off-duty capacity while in uniform providing extra patrols in the area, then confronted Rodriguez in the checkout line while multiple bystanders recorded video on cell phones.

(WARNING: This video contains violence and obscene language)

Posted by Isley Rodriguez on Sunday, June 14, 2020

One video begins with Watters and Rodriguez arguing while Rodriguez’s wife and a small child look on. It’s unclear exactly what is being said.

The officer then tries to grab Rodriguez’s arm in an apparent attempt to detain him, the video shows, but Rodriguez pulls away and pushes the officer’s arm away. The officer then tries to grab Rodriguez again and once again Rodriguez pulls away.

In translating this video, Rodriguez is telling the officer in Spanish: “Let me go, don’t touch me."

According to the arrest report, Watters then told Rodriguez not to do that again.

Watters then punches Rodriguez in the face multiple times, knocking him to the ground and bloodying his face while his wife screams in the background.

After a struggle, Rodriguez is handcuffed while his wife pulls at Watters’ arms.

The incident is now under administrative review by JSO.

According to JSO, minor misconduct is investigated by the officer’s commanding officer and a written report is forwarded to the Internal Affairs Unit.

Serious complaints are investigated by the Internal Affairs Section and a report is prepared which includes sworn statements from the complainant, the accused, and the witnesses.

It was not clear Thursday the next step in the administrative review of the incident.

Language barrier

David Rodriguez, Yoel’s nephew, said his uncle and aunt shown in the video don’t speak English which played a role in what happened.

“They told me that the officer asked Yoel to leave but Yoel didn’t understand what was going on and he was just shopping. Honestly, I don’t understand why the officer did what he did,” David Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, who has two black eyes in his mug photo, was ordered held on $7,500 bond Monday morning. He told the judge through an interpreter he also has a broken nose.

Rodriguez has no prior arrests in Duval County, according to a search of local court records.

David Rodriguez said his family plans to get a lawyer and take this case as far as they can.

“He’s a cop. He needs to be professional with how he deals with his job,” David Rodriguez said.

News4Jax Crime and Safety Expert Ken Jefferson, a former JSO officer, said the incident could’ve been resolved in another way and there were ways to deescalate the situation.

But Jefferson questions if the people involved couldn’t speak English to communicate with the officer, then what exactly transpired to cause it to escalate the way it did. That isn’t clear in the video or in JSO’s report.

An eyewitness who didn’t want to be identified said it all started when he and his wife were waiting in the same long checkout line as Rodriguez and his family.

“[Rodriguez’s] wife was in line. He went off to get something and came back,” the witness told News4Jax.

The witness and his wife said employees walked over to Rodriguez to tell him the store was closed and that he couldn’t keep shopping. The arrest report states the same, but according to the witness, it was obvious that Rodriguez didn’t understand what they were saying to him in English.

“If he had any English, it would have been a one or two-word English vocabulary,” the witness said.

Then the officer showed up and the situation quickly turned violent.

“I don’t know exactly what the cop said, but I think he was telling him he had to leave. He wasn’t going to get to pay for his stuff. ‘I just need to pay. I just need to pay.’ The cop kept trying to grab his arm and he was like, ‘Don’t touch me. Why are you touching me? Don’t touch me.’ And the cop just whaled back and just popped the dude in the nose," the witness said. "That cop should have never been called. I think he’s 40 percent at fault because he punched the guy. But Walmart should have never escalated it to the point where they’re harassing one of their customers, just because he’s grabbing something extra while his wife’s waiting in line.”

Steve Zona, President of the Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police, issued a statement after seeing video of the incident on News4Jax.com.

“It is abundantly clear that the defendant in this case not only hit the officer’s arm but he was actively pulling away and resisting the officer,” Zona wrote. “We are thankful that the officer was able to overcome the resistance and prevent severe injury to the defendant, injury to himself, or injury to innocent bystanders.”

It is abundantly clear that the defendant in this case not only hit the officer’s arm but he was actively pulling away...

Posted by Fraternal Order of Police Jacksonville, FL Lodge 5-30 on Monday, June 15, 2020

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