Lakeland police: Officers 'justified' in hitting, kicking homeless man

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The police officers seen in now-viral videos hitting and kicking a homeless man were “justified” in their response, an initial Lakeland Police Department review concluded. But at least one witness doubts that.

Two separate videos caught portions of the incident, which police say unfolded Tuesday afternoon near U.S. 98 North and Interstate 4. 

Lakeland police says officers J.R. West and DeAngelo Anthony came upon 38-year-old Justin Abbott, who was sleeping under the overpass. Alfaro's video shows officers punching and appearing to rear back and deliver kicks to Abbott.

A police spokesman explained that the officer backed away to avoid the Taser, then kicked Abbott to keep him from grabbing the Taser himself – all within the guidelines of LPD’s use-of-force policy.

"It probably saved the officers’ lives,” LPD's Gary Gross insisted. “If that guy would have had the Taser and pointed it and gone after the officer, it would have incapacitated them. He could’ve got their gun."

”It doesn’t take three full-grown guys who are 10 times bigger than him to start beating and kicking on him, for sure,” countered Joel Alfaro, who recorded one of the videos. “They could’ve held him down and arrested him but they decided to throw punches and kicks like they're part of a gang or something."

The department says West, 44, is a five-year LPD veteran. Anthony, 30, has been with the department for 11 years. An administrative review is underway, but Gross was clear that the initial review suggested the officers were justified.

“The Lakeland Police Department stands behind these officers' use of force in this case at this point in time,” Sgt. Gross said.

Gross added, “We do understand perception is reality for some people, but that's not always the case.” 

Meanwhile, police say doctors found Abbott suffered "no treatable injuries.” They pointed out that his criminal history includes 13 arrests in eight different states, with charges including aggravated assault with child abuse, burglary, and battery.  

He now faces charges of resisting arrest and trespassing.