A video from the Palmetto Police Department's 2016 Christmas party shows officers and detectives poking a little fun at what was a series of thefts of brick pavers from Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
The video concludes with detectives pretending to waterboard a fake suspect, demanding to know who was stealing the bricks.
It was meant as a joke, but the Manatee County chapter of the NAACP isn't laughing.
Waterboarding is considered a form of torture, in which water is poured over a cloth covering the face of the suspect. The procedure mimics the sense of drowning, causing extreme panic. Intelligence officials touted the success of the procedure, authorized under the President George W. Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for interrogations of suspected terrorists.
Bush banned the procedure in 2006 and President Barack Obama banned issued a similar ban following his 2008 election victory.
The Palmetto officers, at the time, produced the video after the city commission expressed frustration that whoever was stealing the pavers, most of which were tossed into a nearby creek, hadn't been caught.
Commissioners put pressure on the police department to catch the vandals. In response, Chief Scott Tyler ordered hourly patrols of the park.
In the video, about 3 minutes in, officers staged a scene where they lined up at night with flashlights to do their "weekly brick count." At the end of the count the officers report that a half of brick was missing and the supervisor responded with a pretend statement from Tyler that a "half brick was one brick too many and we are all fired."
The video shows the officers taking their badges off and placing them on the hood of a squad car. The presentation goes on with several more pictures before returning to the subject matter of the paver thefts. The cameraman walks into a structure, at about the 11:33 mark, to find several detectives gathered around an individual strapped to a board.
One officer bends down with a jug of water while another is rubbing battery cables together causing them to spark, demanding to know what the suspect knows about the thefts.
No water was poured and the fake suspect was one of the detective's son.
"If you tear it all apart and work hard enough at it, you can make something bad out of it," said Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant, who said she did not attend the 2016 party and was unaware of the video until recently. "I don't go to that one because it gives them an opportunity for their own camaraderie and to be with their law enforcement brothers and sisters."
Bryant said it's a time for the officers to blow off a little steam, "and make fun of each other, myself, and the city commission with all good intentions. I've never taken offense. It's a really good group of people and I think it's a great opportunity to bond with one another."
Bryant said, at the time, the city was frustrated over what was happening and they were being required to patrol the park more often when they had an entire city to worry about so, "They decided to do this show and have a little fun with it."
Bryant did say she regretted some of the language used in the video, particularly another scene when a supervisor pretends to catch his detectives playing a golf game in their office while another pretended to sleep at his desk. The segment is at about the 11-minute mark. The supervisor can be heard to say "What the (expletive) are you doing?"
Bryant said the incident was handled internally. The 2017 version of the video went back to the traditional showing of officers during the year in a variety of situations and celebrating promotions over the year.
Rodney Jones, Manatee County NAACP president, did not return a call for comment. But in an email to the city, he demanded to see the portion of the video depicting the waterboarding.
Bryant said in her conversations with Jones, he described waterboarding as a method used to torture slaves.
Bryant said the video was a year-and-a-half old and, "Now someone thinks they are offended. I don't see any need for disciplinary action, but I do see there was an observation by the chief that there was some internal action based on the 2017 Christmas party presentation."
Tyler confirmed he encouraged his officers to take a different direction after the 2016 video was presented.
"They just kind of did it and I was as entertained as anyone else and no one complained at the time," Tyler said. "I did have a conversation with the officers that they needed to be more careful and not so edgy and get back to just the photos we do. It's easy to say after the fact that it was never meant to be offensive, but I believe when you look at the entirety of it, the intent was to parody the fact that they were ordered to patrol the park every hour. They were just trying to show, 'Really chief? With all we have to do in the rest of the city?'"
Tyler said it was a parody of the incident, not of any one individual.
"That's why it's really, really important to look at the video as a whole," he said.
Tyler said it was something the officers did for each other, separate from their duties, although he acknowledged some on-duty officers participated in making the videos, which he also has corrected.
Asked if there was any reason Tyler believes disciplinary action should be taken, he said, "No, I don't."
Bryant said those involved in making the videos feel horrible if what they did tarnished the image of the city in any way.
"This is a great group of people," she said. "They put their lives on the line for this community every single day. They do feel bad because they certainly want to make this city proud of what they do. It's a great group of men and women and I stand by that statement."