It was about 5 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 5, and throughout the Alta Westgate apartments, children were snuggled in their beds. School was still a few hours away. The sun had yet to rise.
Bullets flew in all directions. Across the parking lot. Into a car. Windows shattered in a corner unit where a 1-year-old was sleeping, along with her siblings. By the time it was over, the
sheriff would later say, deputies fired more than 100 rounds. Some of those rounds hit their mark — killing a suspected car thief who the Sheriff's Office says was trying to run down deputies. And yet, more than two weeks later, residents who live there are still wondering whether deputies did the right thing — not by defending their lives — but by following the suspect into a populated apartment complex and unleashing a torrent of gunfire with so many innocents so close by.
I'm wondering whether the rest of this community even cares.
The shooting, after all, happened in west Orlando, near
— where crime is no stranger.
And the reaction has been largely … silence.
The TV stations showed up for their early-morning stand-ups and next-day follows. The newspaper did something similar, with a couple of follow-ups tucked inside the Local section.
Then the media and the community seemed ready to move on.
Can you imagine the reaction if this had happened somewhere else?
If deputies had tailed a suspect into College Park and unloaded more than 100 rounds in the middle of one of the streets named after
If the pursuit had ended somewhere in Baldwin Park, and stray bullets had hit the homes of little boys and girls who attend Audubon Park Elementary.
The outcry would be deafening.
Parents would demand answers. The media would camp out on the manicured lawns. Politicians would call for accountability.
We should demand nothing less this time.
Sheriff Jerry Demings says we will get it. "I take this very seriously," he said Friday. "We owe it to the community. To the families that were involved. I owe it to my deputies."
Let me be very clear: My sympathies do not lie with criminals.
If the suspect, 27-year-old Torey Breedlove, did as the authorities say and tried to run over deputies who had him cornered, he should've known that pressing the accelerator might be the last thing he'd ever do.
The men and women who serve and protect put their lives on the line. Sometimes they have to make the necessary choice of protecting their own lives by taking the life of someone trying to kill them.
But there are details about this case that are troubling — particularly with regard to the number of rounds that were fired at a moving vehicle in a heavily populated area.
Shooting at moving cars is controversial in the first place. Many departments — including the
— frown on it, ordering officers to fire at cars only as a last resort.
The reasons are plentiful and well-documented. Bullets can ricochet off the vehicle and hit bystanders. If the officer misses the target, he may get killed by the oncoming car.
When shooting at drivers, officers sometimes aren't even sure at whom they are firing. That was the case in
a few years ago when a deputy fired nine rounds into a vehicle before he learned that the driver was a 12-year-old girl.
Orange County's rulebook says deputies are unauthorized to shoot "at or into a moving vehicle" unless lives are at risk.
even goes so far as to remind deputies in its manual that "shooting at or from a moving vehicle is a dangerous and generally ineffective practice."
As they do with high-speed chases, agencies sometimes makes choices to abandon the pursuit of a suspected car thief, for instance, to protect the public.
There's a lot about this case we don't yet know.
The Sheriff's Office said deputies were following Breedlove, who was driving a stolen car and had a history of criminal activity, when he pulled into the apartment complex. When confronted, he took aim at deputies with his car, leaving them with no choice but to start firing, according to Demings.
The office said all nine officers involved had been investigated — and cleared — in previous on-the-job shootings. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the case.
Demings said he has questions too, but that, so far, he has heard little reason to be concerned.
"The number [of shots] sounds significant," he said. "But when you look at the details of the number of deputies who were threatened … it doesn't sound that unusual."
Demings said he's not even sure bullets went into apartment units. "It appears that it could've been a round or two that entered somebody's home," he said. "But there was also debris. I am going to wait for all the facts."
Residents are waiting as well.
On one evening last week, I walked around the complex – which is one of the nicer ones in west Orlando; recently renovated and full of working families.
I talked with Porcha Peterson, a mother who threw herself to the ground when the gunfire began, draping her body on top of her 1-year-old daughter as the window of her corner unit shattered, along with a sliding glass door.
Peterson recalled the moments of terror — laying on the floor, staring across the hall at her sister, who was huddled with her children as well — as the scariest moments of her life.
"I was terrified," recalled the health-insurance agent. "I didn't know what was going on. It was all so surreal."
Investigators would later remove two bullets from insider her home, she said. Two more were found on her porch.
What residents like Peterson want now is answers — and the confidence that this community and its leaders are taking this as seriously as they would if it had happened anywhere else.
They want to know more about the decision to confront the suspect in a populated residential neighborhood, the decision to fire so many rounds and the balance between catching a suspect and the safety of uninvolved innocents.
Basically, they want to know the same things you would want to know if bullets started flying in or around your home, while your children were asleep inside.
Scott Maxwell can be reached at