LAKE WALES, Fla. — A Lake Wales, Florida, man, who could have been sent to prison for years based on the claims in a police report, was saved by a home surveillance camera. It showed he didn’t attack an officer, as claimed in the report.
After the incident, community leaders said it’s not the first time they’ve heard complaints about heavy-handed policing in their small town.
It started with a traffic stop by Officer Colt Black on the morning of Feb. 8.
Chris Cordero was driving his beat-up Saturn to Publix to pick up medicine for his young son.
“I stopped at a stop sign on Third Street and I noticed the officer behind me, way before I even stopped,” Cordero said, describing how the incident started.
Unbeknownst to the officer, a camera across the street captured it all.
“I get out of the vehicle to ask him what’s going on because he’s been following me for a while,” Cordero said.
Cordero stood by his car for more than 20 seconds.
“Cordero immediately exited the driver door and began to charge...”
However, Black’s report said, “Cordero immediately exited the driver door and began to charge towards my patrol vehicle.”
It also indicated Cordero approached the officer with closed fists.
“That’s absolutely not true,” Cordero said.
Cordero said he complied with all of Black’s commands.
“The officer requested to me that I go to the back of my car and put my hands on the trunk. Because he wants to search me to see if I have a weapon,” Cordero said.
Black approached Cordero about 30 seconds later.
“He sucker-punched me from the back, right here, cracked a piece of my tooth out. I landed on the ground,” Cordero said.
Moments later, Officer Travis Worley arrived.
“They both jumped on me and beat me up really bad,” Cordero said.
In the report, Black says he, “Delivered an elbow strike to the left side of Cordero’s head” … because he thought he was ”reaching for a weapon.”
In an internal affairs complaint Cordero filed, he said Worley used a racist slur.
Cordero was charged with resisting arrest, assault on a law enforcement officer and making a death threat to a law enforcement officer.
When he bonded out of jail the next day, he went door to door in the neighborhood until he found the footage.
"I believe my perception was altered...”
After Cordero shared the footage with police, Black wrote in another report, "I believe my perception was altered due to the high stress of the incident.”
“When I told Mr. Cordero I believed him, he broke down in tears."
Lake Wales attorney Sara Jones forwarded the video to the Polk County State’s Attorney’s Office, which immediately dropped the charges.
Jones says she’s heard multiple complaints from clients about Lake Wales officers using heavy-handed tactics.
“These officers who have issues with power and control target people who they know won’t be believed,” Jones said.
She says she believes police leadership is aware there are issues with some of the officers on the force.
“They know. How can they not when I stand at the commission podium and I talk to them and I say, 'I'll tell you, I'll show you. Come talk to me. I'll tell you who they are and what they're doing and I'll help you build the cases against them,'” Jones said.
We requested an interview with the police chief, but he declined, citing an ongoing internal investigation.
In an emailed statement, the police department confirmed Black resigned, effective Feb. 10 and Worley was placed on administrative station duty.
Both officers had prior complaints
Both officers have been previously investigated. Two complaints against Black were investigated and closed without any action taken because the investigator found he did not violate policy. Black was disciplined in 2018 for an unauthorized vehicle pursuit.
Worley, named “Officer of the Year” in 2019 and past president of the Lake Wales Police Officers Association, has been the subject of four citizen complaints and two internal investigations, including two allegations saying he used racial slurs.
The president of the West Florida Police Benevolent Association said Worley was cleared in both instances.
In one complaint, the Lake Wales High School principal emailed the police chief about Worley alleging he used a racial slur in front of students and saying, “quite simply, he is not the same caliber as the other officers I know are--- not even close.”
The complaint was investigated by the deputy chief, but no wrongdoing was substantiated.
Worley was also the subject of an internal investigation after an African American female officer accused him of using a racial slur while on a call.
The report says investigators were, “unable to prove if a racial slur was used by Officer Worley” but investigators found evidence Worley used “multiple profane words while in a heated argument.”
He was suspended for eight hours without pay in 2020.
Worley defended himself, writing, “more than ample opportunities were given for someone to provide evidence of me being racist, with negative results." He asked the chief to investigate the female officer, writing “the longer she is allowed to continue working here, the more of a chance she will have to harm good officers and their families."
City commissioner Terrye Howell says she was troubled by what happened to Cordero and by recent complaints from others.
“All police are not trying to intimidate people. That’s not the case. But when you have one or two bad apples, then they’re spilling that bad apple part to other officers, then that bunch starts growing,” Howell said.
Howell made a proposal for police body cameras more than a year ago, but it failed to gain traction.
Body camera program approved
Just days after Cordero’s arrest, a body cam program was on the commission agenda again. More than a dozen people spoke in favor of it.
“I do find it disturbing that a home video camera was able to capture what occurred. I do believe that the cams are needed,” said one resident.
“We’ve got police that’s supposed to protect and serve that are actually doing them harm,” said another.
Commissioner Howell believes the body cameras are well worth the $75,000 cost.
“Putting lives before money, that's what I'm thinking about right now.”
The program passed by a unanimous vote, making Lake Wales the first city in Polk County to adopt body cams.
Cordero wishes it happened sooner.
“How many more innocent people are sitting in jail? How many people in the community are scared to come forward about these officers?“ Cordero said.
This article was written by Adam Walser for WFTS.