Protester hit in face by police rubber bullet wants answers

KELLI KENNEDY
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America Protests Florida Woman Shot

LaToya Ratlieff poses for a photograph Friday, June 12, 2020, in Lauderhill, Fla. Ratlieff was hit in the face by a police officer's rubber bullet during a Fort Lauderdale protest over the death of George Floyd on May 31. Protests continue in support of Floyd, a black man who died while in police custody in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — LaToya Ratlieff remembers the blood spilling from her head, covering her clothes, the car ride from a stranger to the hospital and the 20 stitches sewn into her head after being shot in the face by a police officer with a rubber bullet during a Fort Lauderdale protest.

The 34-year-old was getting ready to leave on May 31 after several hours at a peaceful protest sparked by the death of George Floyd. As she made her way through the parking garage, something shifted in the air. Further away, she could hear a group of angry protesters becoming more agitated. In the middle of the garage, a small group of peaceful protesters knelt down and she joined them.

Moments later, without warning, she said Fort Lauderdale police officers released tear gas and she ran to a corner, disoriented and overcome by smoke. She remembers the pressure of the rubber bullet hitting her face and strangers rushing to help. She did not know the people who drove her to the hospital and removed their shirt to apply pressure to suppress the blood gushing from her head.

Ratlieff sat down with The Associated Press for an interview Friday, nearly two weeks after a photo of her injured face went viral. Twenty-four hours after the incident, the haunting selfie documented her purple right eye swollen shut, her left eye puffy and half open and a thick bandage wrapped around her forehead. She is seeing specialists to assess whether there's long-term damage from the cranial fracture.

On Friday, Ratlieff's right eye was open but filled with blood. Small bruises remain. She's not angry, but said she wants answers from the police department.

“Where is the accountability to say that this is going to be the last incident," she said. "For those officers that have that power and abuse that power, what are they gong to do to ensure that power is taken away.”

Fort Lauderdale Police did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Friday. Ratlieff said someone from the department’s internal affairs contacted her last week, but it was literally too painful to speak.

Her jaw was so swollen she drank smoothies twice a day for nearly a week. She still has severe headaches and struggles to see out of her right eye.

She doesn't want money and hasn't filed a lawsuit, stressing “it's about reform and accountability.”

Graphic witness videos show Ratlieff wearing a bright pink backpack, bending over and coughing from the tear gas. As she walks away from police, they fire a rubber bullet and a protester grabs her hand and tries to hurry her. A second shot cracks loudly through the air and Ratlieff crumples to the concrete with a bone-chilling cry.

“She's hurt, she's hurt. She's bleeding,” a witness screams frantically, as several gather around her and blood is seen pouring onto the ground.

A Fort Lauderdale police officer was suspended for an incident during that same protest after video showed he pushed a kneeling woman to the ground. Angry protesters responded by throwing bottles. The officer’s colleagues quickly pushed him away from the woman and down the street.

It's unclear the timeline of events and whether that happened before or after Ratlieff was shot, but witnesses said that the protest had been peaceful for several hours and turned violent after the officer pushed the kneeling woman.

The department has not released the name of the officer who shot Ratlieff. Her attorney, Michael Davis, has also requested body-cam video and for an opportunity for the injured woman to have "a conversation about their policies.”

“LaToya was a peaceful demonstrator. She was in a place she was allowed to be and she was engaged in activity that was protected by the Constitution of the U.S.,” said Davis. "We're just hoping to find answers as to why her rights were violated."