FATAL FIRE - FLAWED JUSTICE

Handful of police piled up shootings

 

A group of 20 Miami police officers fired nearly half of all the bullets expended by the 1,100-officer department since 1990, making them some of the most aggressive shooters in the nation, a Herald investigation has found. The group includes seven officers now under indictment on charges of planting guns at police shooting scenes and four who have been disciplined for lying to supervisors in unrelated cases. One officer - Juan Mendez - has accumulated four fatal shootings, more than any other police officer in Florida, according to a Herald survey of more than 25 urban police departments in Florida and the nation. "Make sure when you're telling people I'm Florida's deadliest cop that you also tell them I'm working in Florida's deadliest city, on Florida's deadliest streets, and on Florida's deadliest shifts, " Mendez said in a recent interview. "I do not go out there looking to shoot people." Miami Chief Raul Martinez acknowledged that the problem of repeat shooters is particularly vexing - especially when there is no clear evidence that the shootings were unjustified. "It's one thing when officers fabricate evidence, plant guns and tell lies, " Martinez said. "But what happens when you appear to have good, justifiable shootings, . . . when they say I had to shoot to defend myself? "It's difficult to tell them when not to shoot." Police have grappled with the question for years: Are some officers more prone to shoot because of their mind-set and tactics, while other officers might avoid shooting? In Mendez's case, for instance, the suspects were armed in three of his four fatal shootings and the cases were ruled justified by the department. Yet his commanders acknowledge they will never know whether another officer - one of the more than 900 who have never fired their weapons - might have avoided deadly force. "If there is one thing that has failed us, it's that, " Martinez said. "Once you have an officer who's involved in three, four, five, six justifiable shootings, what should we do with him? We haven't found the answer." A yearlong Herald review of every bullet fired by the department revealed failed oversight in 46 questionable police shootings throughout the 1990s, many of them involving the department's most aggressive shooters. Mendez, who was involved in one of those questionable shootings, is among six Miami officers with more than five shootings in their careers, a number higher than almost all other urban departments surveyed by The Herald. Many - including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia - reported that they have no officers with that many shootings.

COMPARING SHOOTINGS Other, larger forces show a better profile than Miami

Miami-Dade County's police force, with three times as many officers, has none with that many either. Tampa police, with nearly 1,000 officers, have one officer with four shootings and one with five. Washington, D.C., with nearly 3,500 officers, reported only one officer with more than five shootings. Even New York City - with nearly 40 times more officers than Miami - reported only seven officers with five or more shootings. "That's incredible, " said Bishop Victor T. Curry, a longtime black community activist and frequent critic of the Miami police. "It's clear they would rather suffer with the reputation that they employ a bunch of Keystone Cops than to cut out this cancer and move on." But the officers and their supporters argue that they are being unfairly labeled as bad cops. "What we're dealing with here is a select group of people" put into specialized units and "tasked with finding violent felony offenders, " said Al Cotera, head of the Miami police union. Supporters say shooting statistics should be stacked alongside commendations and arrest records, and that their honed skills as alert, aggressive police officers put them in harm's way more often. "I notice things - what am I supposed to do?" Officer Mendez said. "Why? I don't know why. Why does Barry Bonds hit more home runs?"

THE MOST PROLIFIC In their careers, 3 officers fired 207 bullets, killing 5 While Mendez has more fatal shootings, he ranks fourth in the number of overall shots fired at suspects. The top three shooters: * Arturo Beguiristain, one of the officers indicted on charges that he planted guns, has fired 84 bullets in eight incidents. He has killed two suspects. * Alejandro Macias, another indicted officer, has fired 76 bullets in five separate incidents - killing two people. He was reprimanded for untruthfulness in 1989 to protect a partner who had beaten up a doctor in a Miami park. * Jeffrey Locke fired 47 bullets in four separate shootings. His only fatality turned out to be a bystander mistakenly shot while on an evening walk with his 5-year-old stepdaughter. While the vast majority of Miami officers never fire their weapons, since 1990 these officers are among 20 who have fired 552 times in 72 incidents - nearly half the bullets fired by the department. This small group has killed 16 - again, nearly half the fatals. "These guys are the front-line soldiers, given the job to put themselves in harm's way, " said Richard Sharpstein, Beguiristain's lawyer. "They are attacked more. They are in danger more. And they shoot more, period, " Sharpstein said. "Art is a hero. He should be given medals, not criticism and indictments." Said Locke: "It's a highly stressful situation when your life is on the line and it's dark and there's people yelling and they have guns. Tell me what you would do. You have to make a decision in a split second." Macias declined to be interviewed, but his defense attorney, Bill Matthewman, defended his client as one of the department's most aggressive and best officers. ANOTHER APPROACH Officers who fired could have been closely monitored But Chief Martinez - who was a top commander throughout the 1990s - acknowledges that his department should have done a better job of addressing officers prone to shoot. In many other departments surveyed by The Herald, commanders said officers who are involved in several shootings are assigned other duties. That idea was even discussed at the Miami Police Department, said one retired commander. "Even if an officer did four or five shootings and they all looked great, at some point I felt there should only be so many in an officer's career, " said retired Lt. John Campbell, who headed both homicide and Internal Affairs in his career. "That was an unpopular opinion and it was not adopted, " he said. "[Mendez] was a good case in point of someone that should be removed from this kind of situation." Martinez said civil-service protections, a strong police union and a weakly enforced early warning system have made it difficult to transfer or penalize officers involved in multiple shootings. Police experts and even some department insiders argue that top-level brass such as Martinez have turned a blind eye to overly aggressive officers for years. "We had some questionable shootings by a number of the same people, " Campbell said. "If you are not sure, maybe we should move them." Mendez was one such officer - identified by commanders as a potential problem early in his career. He has been commended for numerous arrests and aggressive community service 40 times since he was hired in 1984. He quickly excelled as a self-motivated officer. But in 1990 - in a rare action - his bosses filed felony assault charges against Mendez after two drug suspects accused him of beating them bloody with his walkie-talkie. He denied the allegations. Those charges fizzled when his accusers were indicted on unrelated charges and refused to testify against Mendez. He went back to work, where in 1996 he was promoted to sergeant. "It wasn't true, " Mendez told The Herald. "We hear these kinds of allegations from people we arrest all the time." Mendez has accumulated 56 allegations of various forms of misconduct in his 18 years, the second highest number of citizen complaints on the force. He was cleared in all but two. All 20 of Miami's top shooters have accumulated 708 citizen complaints among them, and were cleared 652 times. Beguiristain was cleared in 14 of 16 complaints, Macias in 25 of 29, and Locke in 43 of 45. Mendez has been involved in seven shootings, not counting one accidental shooting. In all but one, which is still under consideration, the department decided that Mendez was justified in pulling the trigger - including a 1990 incident in which he and officer Jose Quintero fired at an armed security guard they mistook for a robbery suspect. The Herald found no officers east of the Mississippi with as many fatal shootings as Mendez. One Denver officer asked for reassignment to desk duty after his fifth fatal shooting. One Phoenix police veteran has five fatals.

MOST CONTROVERSIAL After unarmed man is slain, officer taken off street duty By far, Mendez's most controversial shooting came in 1999, when he fired seven times from the seat of his patrol car at an unarmed and fleeing carjacking suspect - Antonio Butler, 19. Mendez said Butler was reaching for his waistband and appeared to be going for a gun. Butler died at the scene. Leaders in Miami's black community were outraged over the Butler shooting, and a federal grand jury convened to investigate whether Butler's civil rights were violated by Mendez. The high-profile controversy led Miami police officials to take Mendez off the streets. He is now a supervisor in the violent-crimes division. "People think I'm a monster, " Mendez said. "I'm not a monster. As a little boy, I wanted to be a police officer. I'm not a superstar. I'm not a SWAT guy. I'm not fast to the gun. I'm just a street cop. I don't go looking for the limelight."

MIAMI'S TOP SHOOTERS These 20 Miami police officers account for nearly half of all shots fired atsuspects by the 1,100-officer force since 1990. In parenthesis are statistics representing their entire police career. Only officers with more than one shooting were included in this analysis. Notincluded were shootings in which officers fired at dogs or discharged their gunsby accident. Of the 552 bullets they have fired at suspects since 1990, 48 hit their targets, wounding 19 and killing 16. Seven of these 20 officers are now charged withconspiring to plant guns at the scenes of police shootings.

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