More than a year after Miami police fatally shot an unarmed motorist in Little Haiti — sparking political uproar, tearful testimony at City Hall and intense scrutiny of a string of deadly police shootings in predominantly black neighborhoods — prosecutors have concluded that the officer committed no crime.
In a final report issued Thursday, prosecutors ruled that Miami Officer Reynaldo Goyos was legally justified in shooting driver Travis McNeil, who after a nighttime traffic stop, reached down and appeared to be reaching for something.
McNeil was not reaching for a weapon — none was found in his car. Instead, prosecutors believe, McNeil, 28, was likely reaching for cellphones that had apparently fallen from his lap, according to the final report by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.
A manslaughter prosecution, the office concluded, would not be able to disprove that the officer had “reasonable fear that Mr. McNeil was reaching for a weapon” because fellow officers said McNeil ignored commands by Goyos to show his hands.
McNeil’s cousin, Kareem Williams, 30, a passenger in the car, was also shot. He survived.
At the time, McNeil’s death was the last of seven fatal police shootings of black men in Miami’s inner city in the span of seven months under former police chief Miguel Exposito. All but two of the men were armed.
The shootings sparked furor among inner-city activists, who claimed Exposito’s emphasis on tactical units — officers, usually in unmarked cars, who actively seek out criminals — fostered a “wild West’’ mentality among officers.
On Tuesday, the McNeil family’s lawyer said he believed prosecutors could have filed at least a manslaughter charge. “You have four police agencies pulling a guy over for a DUI stop, in unmarked cars, and they blow him away,” said Randy Berg, of the Florida Justice Institute, who plans to file a federal lawsuit against police. “No firearms. No drugs. They didn’t even know who he was.”
The furor last year spilled over into City Hall, with then-commissioner Richard Dunn — who represented Miami’s urban core — calling for the police chief’s ouster and relatives of the slain man demanding justice at an emotionally charged commission meeting.
The shootings spurred an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice review of Miami police department policies and practices.
Commissioners ousted Exposito in September for unrelated reasons; he is appealing the firing. His successor, Manuel Orosa, scaled back the tactical units Exposito championed, and beefed up community patrols.
Sheila McNeil, Travis McNeil’s mother, said that, while she is “not satisfied” with Goyos’ clearing, she has noted more uniformed officers walking the beat these days. “I like the idea that these officers are not just sitting in their cars, they’re getting out,” McNeil said in an interview.
As for Exposito, he stood firm Thursday in supporting tactical units, saying officers were well trained and vital to keeping bad guys off the streets. He said violent crime is rising because patrol officers are “too busy going from call to call to be proactive.”
“I think the criticism level against me was unjustified and I think time will bear that out,” Exposito said.