Family photo

“They painted her as a criminal, despite the fact that she’s 15 years old and lost her life,” says Natasha Winkler, mother of Laniya Miller.

Her daughter was one of three teens who died early on the morning of March 31 after a police chase. “Before I was notified that of her passing away, [police] had her mug shot, along with the other girls’, printed and released to the press,” says Winkler.

Advertisement

Police say the girls—Laniya, 15, Dominique Battle, 16, and Ashaunti Butler, 15—drowned after crashing into a pond at the Royal Palm Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Fla., after fleeing sheriff’s deputies in a stolen car. But the girls’ families accuse the deputies of simply standing by and allowing the girls to die inside the car in what deputies have described as a weed-choked, sludge-filled pond that they say was unsafe for law-enforcement officials to enter.

Winkler says that she thinks the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has criminalized the teens to take the focus off the fact that deputies at the scene didn’t try harder to save them.

“I feel like it’s a way to take away from their own actions, or lack thereof,” Winkler says.

Advertisement

Ciara Butler is equally distressed about the way she says that her daughter, Ashaunti, has been portrayed by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

“I don’t like the way [police] are slandering they names, and making it seem like they were out-of-control teens, and make it seem like they were out-of-control teens nobody could do nothing with, and at the end of the day, they were normal kids,” Butler seethes. “No matter what they did, that doesn’t mean the crime they committed was punishable by death. They could have done more to try and save all of those girls instead of standing around listening to them scream and holler.”

Winkler adds that the girls were teens, nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, but that these young people will never get the chance to learn from them and change.

“I know in my heart I did everything possible as a mother … [but] I know at 15, my mother didn’t know where I was all the time,” Winkler says, answering those who have criticized the way the teens were being raised. “None of those girls deserved to die that night, and if the police had put as much effort into trying to save them as they have in slandering them, they would be here today.”

Winkler was among more than 20 people who marched outside the blue-and-white headquarters of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday, chanting, “Black girls matter” and “Say her name,” and carrying signs supporting the three girls.

At issue is a dashcam video released by the Pinellas County sheriff showing officers arriving at the scene in which the submerged car can be seen in the reedy water. One officer requests a rescue team with a boat. Others are seen walking around, and you can hear some of the radio traffic.

Advertisement

“There’s nobody out,” one deputy says. Then: “I hear ’em yelling I think.” Another voice: “I don’t see anybody swimming away.” An officer can be seen walking by the dashcam with some of his gear and clothing in his arms, and he looks as if he might be wet. But other deputies at the scene appear to be dry. Finally, a voice says, “They’re done.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Gualtieri released a media packet including reports from the deputies on the scene, DVDs of the dashcam video and still pictures, and he even posted video on the department’s Facebook page. He says that video shows some of the more than 15 deputies at the pond took off their gun belts and clothes and tried to enter the pond to try to save the teens, but that the conditions were too dangerous.

“You were all provided with all of the video, but some media outlets only played one portion of one video with a deputy, who happened to be on the perimeter, and it’s very misleading,” Gualtieri railed at reporters during an April 22 press conference. “Facebook is blowing up with it, saying I lied and we aren’t telling the truth about the deputies that went in. That packet that we have has information in it—the reports that were written by deputies who took their gun belts off, took their clothes off, and went in the water. Those deputies weren’t lying!”

Advertisement

Gualtieri says the deputies got into water that was full of sludge and weeds, and that “they didn’t need to die over it.” He also says the fact is that the three girls were running from police in a stolen car at 4 in the morning, and the three of them combined had seven prior arrests for stealing cars in the past year.

“That’s the problem we need to focus on. This isn’t a problem with the sheriff’s office or police; it’s a problem with those kids,” he says. “Everybody who is saying these guys didn’t do their jobs or that they provided false information needs to stop that irresponsible rhetoric because it is nonsense.”

But Bay Area Dream Defenders team coordinator Ashley Green, one of the organizers of the protest, says the point here is trying to reframe the narrative around the teens being criminals without the promise of a future, and reminding people, as well as the police, that these were girls who had hopes and dreams for their futures and that they deserved a chance at making them a reality. Thursday’s protest was part of the national #SayHerName day of action, aimed at drawing attention to women and girls of color who have died under what activists consider to be suspicious circumstances after encounters with law enforcement.

Advertisement

“I don’t know of a teen in America who hasn’t done something regrettable, but most teens, particularly white teens, are given the opportunity to learn from those mistakes,” Green says. “In the case of black girls, those mistakes are criminalized in a way that doesn’t acknowledge their chances to grow up and become successful, thriving adults.”

Green not only says that there are questions about whether the car was stolen in the first place, but also accuses the sheriff of grouping the number of the girls’ offenses together as “a justification for death.”

Finally, she questions the motives behind the special task force the Pinellas County sheriff has formed to fight auto thefts in the area.

Advertisement

“We know that these issues around the auto theft have really just been a justification to escalate the police presence in our community,” Green says. “We think it is just an excuse to escalate the war on kids in the black community.”

The Root reached out to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office for comment and an update on the investigation but was told that no one was available to respond.

Winkler and Butler have retained an attorney, and litigation is likely after their own investigation is complete. Yashica Clemmons, the mother of Dominique Battle, has a separate attorney, who says they are filing a wrongful death suit.

Advertisement

Winkler says that she wants people to know that her daughter, Laniya, did indeed have dreams, and the world will feel her loss.

“She wanted to be an attorney and help people,” Winkler says. “I just want people to know she was a wonderful daughter. … She liked music and basketball and she was funny and goofy and liked to make you laugh. She was just wonderful.”