In dozens of shootings since 1990, city of Miami police officers have shot unarmed people in the back, fired wildly at fleeing cars, and shot indiscriminately even when it put innocent lives at risk, a Herald review of every bullet fired by officers shows.
Yet top commanders, including current Police Chief Raúl Martinez, took no disciplinary action in 46 cases in which evidence strongly suggests that the shootings were questionable or that the facts contradicted versions given by officers, The Herald found.
Most of those shootings came years before 13 Miami police officers were indicted by federal prosecutors in five different incidents and charged with concocting evidence and planting guns. Martinez acknowledges some past failures but defends the department, saying officers in the 1990s were responsible for fighting crime in one of America's most violent cities.
He is now pledging reforms.
But the review shows that the questionable shooting incidents may be more numerous than the federal indictments allege. And Martinez's role in the failure to address those cases - in which people were killed or put in danger - has raised serious questions about the chief's ability to curb the problem.
Indeed, for more than a decade, investigators and brass dismissed violations of policy, signed off on uncontrolled firing and rarely challenged officers' accounts of the shootings, even in the face of contradictory evidence.
That failure to confront the undisciplined use of deadly force led to more bad shootings, more failures of oversight, and ultimately more deaths. Eventually, critics contend, a culture of permissiveness spread through the entire department.
Martinez admits it was, at times, hard to reach the truth and says supervisors tried to carefully consider shootings and come to fair judgments. But for five years, from 1992 to 1997, Martinez was at the helm of a system of failed oversight. Eighteen of the questionable shootings, or 39 percent, were cleared when Martinez himself headed the Firearms Review Board, a panel of three assistant chiefs judging shooting cases. In at least three of those 18 shootings, evidence suggests that guns were planted.
A 12-YEAR DEATH TOLL
33 people killed under questionable circumstances
The Herald examined 180 intentional-shooting cases, combed through hundreds of court files, and conducted dozens of interviews with witnesses, police officers, victims and suspects.
Among the findings:
* Between 1990 and 2001, Miami officers shot 15 people from the back in questionable circumstances, killing five. There were 22 shootings in which the suspects were clearly unarmed, and a dozen others in which the officers claimed they saw guns - but no guns were found.
All told, Miami officers shot and killed 33 people in those dozen years - 11 under questionable circumstances.
* They fired more than 300 bullets at 33 moving cars in spite of policies strongly discouraging it. In four of those cases, people were killed.
* At other shooting scenes, the large number of bullets fired indiscriminately suggests that officers often lost control and had no line of vision on their intended targets. Six times, they wounded or killed bystanders.
More times than not, in fact, officers missed their intended targets and sent bullets flying, raising questions about whether they should have started shooting at all. Miami police fired about 1,300 bullets at suspects in those 12 years, and missed more than 1,100 times. At least 20 of those bullets ended up inside nearby homes, including one case in which a woman found a police bullet in her microwave.