Did Danny Knight have to die?
The family of the man killed at a 2022 wedding by a Winter Park police officer seeks answers about preventing police shootings
By Beth Kassab
Katrina Knight lives in Lakeland, more than 60 miles from Winter Park City Hall, but she has rarely missed a City Commission meeting since March, which marked just more than a year since her brother was shot five times by a Winter Park police officer during a 67-second encounter at her daughter’s wedding.
In barely more than a minute after police approached her that night, Katrina Knight went from trying to calm and protect an agitated, severely intoxicated Daniel Knight, 39, on the sidewalk outside the Winter Park Events Center to kneeling near her brother’s body as the bride in her blood-stained gown and wedding guests screamed in disbelief.
Katrina Knight said she and her brother did not know that, minutes earlier, a manager at the events center had called 911 to report a drunk wedding guest who was acting “violent.”
“The police rushed up on us so fast, so erratic, flashlights in our faces, hands on their weapons,” Katrina Knight recalled. “I was scared for my brother. I tried to let them know it’s OK. He’s our brother. He’s fine. He’s just drunk and being loud … The police just ignored us. They want to talk about all the commands they gave us. They don’t talk about how they escalated the situation by getting louder and louder and getting into an argument with a drunk person who wasn’t even committing a crime.”
Katrina Knight and her sister Jennel Smith, who has also attended the City Commission, wonder why the officers didn’t take more time to understand what was happening — key elements of de-escalation tactics embraced by law enforcement agencies across the country after a series of high-profile police killings, including George Floyd in 2020. Those strategies are intended to calm distressed or mentally incapacitated people and bring about peaceful resolutions from police encounters.
City officials declined to answer specific questions about the officers’ response, citing a potential lawsuit from Knight’s family.
Speaking during the public comment portion of city meetings is the only way the sisters know how to ask for more police training and accountability when it comes to how officers ease tensions when they arrive on a scene. And it’s the only way the family knows how to tell the community that Daniel Knight, who many called “Danny,” was a caring dad and a hard worker who had turned his life around. Daniel Knight, they say, was more than the man seen in the more than 15-year-old mugshot distributed by the Winter Park Police Department shortly after he was killed.
Katrina Knight waits patiently through City Commission discussions about how to redevelop the old library, what to do about a parking shortage near Park Avenue and if money should be set aside for public art.
When it’s her turn, she speaks calmly and with authority.
“I just wanted to say it’s easy for everyone to just go on with their lives and talk about parks and greenery and parking lots,” she said at one meeting. “It’s not easy to go on with your life when you still don’t know what happened to your brother right in front of your face at your daughter’s wedding.”
At another recent meeting, Smith pointed out that it took less time for police to confront and kill their brother than the three minutes speakers are allowed in front of commissioners.
“I could show you the entirety of the footage of his death and still have more than a minute to talk to you,” she said, referring to tape from police-worn cameras and the venue’s security footage.
Smith added, “There was no de-escalation. It was non-existent.”
No charges for officers
An officer fired seven shots at Daniel Knight, who was unarmed, striking him five times on Feb. 19, 2022 at the Winter Park Events Center during his niece’s wedding reception.
Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell’s office earlier this year found no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the officer after reviewing evidence from the body-worn cameras, surveillance tapes and interviews with dozens of witnesses.
The decision centered on the fact that Knight and his sister did not comply with the officers’ commands and that Knight struck one of the officers, causing him to fall backward, hit his head and become unconscious as a second officer attempted to deploy his taser against Knight.
Only one of the two taser prongs hit Knight’s arm, so the device did not have any effect and, according to the state attorney’s report, Knight continued to confront the second officer, who also fell backward before firing his weapon from the ground.
“After falling down [redacted] was confronted with Knight standing over him and still advancing,” read the report, which removed the names of the officers involved because of Marsy’s Law. “[Redacted] knew that his only back up, Officer [redacted] was down and it was reasonable for him to fear that if he were to become incapacitated Knight could cause great bodily harm or death upon himself or Officer [redacted].”
But Knight’s family, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and other community activists, say the physical altercation between Knight and the officers could have been prevented.
“The video of Winter Park police shooting Daniel Knight is extremely disturbing and devastating. Police tased and then shot Mr. Knight within a few seconds of each other while his family was physically shielding him from police with their own bodies,” stated N.R. Hines, criminal justice policy strategist at the ACLU of Florida. “That the Winter Park Police Department and the State Attorney’s Office decided that these events did not violate Florida law further speaks to the need for more training in de-escalation tactics statewide. It is unconscionable that Mr. Knight needed to lose his life during a family wedding.”
An internal affairs investigation related to the shooting is still ongoing, said Winter Park Police spokeswoman Pam Marcum.
What is de-escalation?
Like a number of agencies across the country, Winter Park adopted de-escalation training as part of its Use of Force policy in 2020 in the months following high-profile police killings.
The policy calls for training at the time of an officer’s orientation and then yearly training after that.
The department defines de-escalation techniques as “taking actions to stabilize a situation and reduce the immediacy of the threat so that more time, options and resources are available to resolve the situation.” The goal, the policy states, is to “reduce or eliminate the necessity to use force.”
Marcum said Winter Park does not have a written policy that outlines specific de-escalation tactics. And police experts note that every situation is unpredictable and different, causing officers to make split-second decisions.
Don McCrea, a 35-year law enforcement veteran who operates Premier Police Training based in South Dakota, said de-escalation strategies typically involve moving slowly and keeping a safe distance between officers and people who are agitated.
The two officers responded to the events center that night because a manager at the venue called 911 to report that a guest at the wedding, later determined to be Daniel Knight, was intoxicated and acting “violent.” The caller said he wasn’t armed, but was “trying to beat people up.” “Anybody of authority is making him angry,” the caller said.
The officers arrived within seconds of each other and both exited their vehicles and ran to the east side of the building to where Daniel Knight was standing with Katrina Knight on the sidewalk.
Surveillance footage from the venue shows that just before the officers arrived, Daniel Knight had been standing near the pond in back of the Events Center away from other guests before walking to stand next to his sister, where he was yelling. Katrina Knight said her family walked Daniel Knight outside because he had too much to drink and took off his shirt while dancing at a selfie camera station inside the reception.
Winter Park Police last year released an annotated video of events that night, which notes with text on the screen that the officers “speak to male and female subjects to de-escalate the situation,” as the two officers rushed up to Daniel Knight. The text on the video then says, “subject is combative and refuses to cooperate.”
Daniel Knight appears to tell the officers to “shut up” and uses an expletive, though neither officer had said anything yet.
“He’s OK. He’s OK. He’s our brother,” Katrina Knight tells the officers as Daniel Knight is visibly agitated. “It’s his first wedding.”
The body-worn camera footage from both officers shows the first thing they said to Daniel Knight and his sister was “back up” and “move out of the way” followed by “put your hands behind your back,” just 13 seconds into their encounter with Daniel Knight.
Katrina Knight pleaded with the officers to “stop it,” saying “he’s got PTSD and he’s not going to hurt anybody” followed by, “he doesn’t have any weapons.”
“Due to male subject’s combative behavior, officers repeatedly direct female subject to move away from him,” the department said in its video and noted that one officer attempted to separate Katrina Knight from Daniel Knight.
The officer attempted to pull Katrina Knight away from her brother by the arm. Daniel Knight yelled, “Don’t snatch my [expletive] sister,” and pulled her closer to him.
A crowd of wedding guests formed around them, including at least one guest who held out his arms in an apparent effort to create space between Daniel Knight and the officers.
During the struggle, the officers attempted to tase Daniel Knight and he struck one officer in the face.
About six seconds after the first officer was knocked to the ground, the second officer fired the first shot at Knight, just after the bride appeared in the frame of the second officer’s body-worn camera.
The entire encounter — from the time the officers reached Daniel Knight until he was shot — clocked 67 seconds.
“By slowing things down and using some distance, that gives the officers more time to come up with a plan,” McCrea said. “Yelling or barking orders – that’s typically not considered a de-escalation tactic. Giving people an opportunity to explain what’s going on and take in the big picture, that’s what de-escalation is more about.”
Katrina Knight said she continued to try to put herself between the officers and her brother because she was scared for him. The medical examiner reported Knight’s blood alcohol level that night was 0.179, well above the 0.08 limit for Florida drivers. Katrina Knight said her brother did not seem to fully understand what was happening around him. She and Daniel Knight were unaware that anyone called 911 and did not know why the police were there.
Rajiv Sethi, an economics professor at Barnard College at Columbia University who studies police killings and interactions, said there were missed opportunities for the officers to take the confrontation in a different direction.
“It seems clear that Daniel Knight’s sister did not feel that she was in any danger,” Sethi said. “[The officers] could have maintained a safe distance and could have handled the situation in a way that didn’t lead to a direct confrontation … there was no imminent threat to anybody so they did not need to confront him so quickly and closely.”
But, Sethi said, that doesn’t mean that the officers took any actions that were outside the bounds of the law.
“It was very hard to watch the videos,” Sethi said. “There are a number of things that went wrong without which this would not have happened … Police officers have a lot of discretion in using physical force to subdue a suspect if somebody does not comply with a command. What they did is unfortunate and the killing of Mr. Knight was, in my opinion, avoidable. But [the police] didn’t do anything against the law.”
Who was Daniel Knight?
One reason why Katrina Knight said she tried to protect her brother that night is because she was worried he would react poorly, particularly since he was intoxicated and she said he suffered from PTSD. He spent eight years in prison, beginning in 2006 at age 23, on charges including attempted burglary, battery and fleeing or eluding a police officer, according to court records.
The video released by the police department last year included a screen with Knight’s more than 15-year-old mugshot.
In recent years, Daniel Knight kept a clean record and worked a steady job at a major industrial employer in Polk County, his family said.
He was a family man who spent time with his fiancé and young children. He helped his father care for the family’s ranch.
“You hold our hands when we are scared and reassure us everything is gonna be okay,” his daughters wrote on a poster they made him for Father’s Day the year before he died.
“You let us even spend like $18 on a bag of M&Ms at the movies,” read another message.
Daniel Knight’s own words from a letter he wrote to a judge, who agreed to end his probation early, speak to how his views about life changed.
“I’ve learned if you want a good, honest, normal life you have to stay focused and work hard, but most of all take care of your responsibilities and stay out of trouble,” he wrote, noting he earned his GED along with a Welder’s Trade certification. “I was young and stupid when I started getting in trouble, but now that I’m older I’ve realized that’s not the type of life I want to live, nor do I want that for my family.”
The letter was dated February 28, 2014, almost exactly nine years before Katrina Knight and Jennel Smith attended their first Winter Park City Commission meeting.
The sisters appeared again this week and played a video of family photos.
“We are hoping to save lives in the future,” Smith said. “We want the city to open its eyes and realize what happened so it doesn’t happen to anybody else’s family.”