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.
In Miami-Dade, prosecutors review every police shooting to see if an officer broke state law in firing a weapon. In Florida, on-duty officers are generally given wide leeway in using deadly force to protect themselves or others — and prosecutors statewide, including here, virtually never charge cops for manslaughter or murder.
Police critics bemoaned the lack of information on the shootings released by Exposito, who deferred to prosecutors. He later feuded with Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle over long delays in ruling on police shootings.
Currently, the state attorney’s office is still reviewing 76 nonfatal and fatal police shootings from all local Miami-Dade law enforcement agencies, including last month’s killing of a man eating the face of a homeless man on the MacArthur Causeway.
Of the seven controversial Miami police shootings under Exposito, five have now been closed. The second-most controversial: the death of unarmed motorist DeCarlos Moore in Overtown in July 2010. An officer mistook a foil-wrapped stash of drugs for a weapon during a traffic stop.
In McNeil’s case, he and his cousin had just left the Take One strip club on the night of Feb. 10, 2011. A bouncer told police he escorted them out because his cousin, Williams, was “touching the dancers.” Williams denied the men were drunk.
Outside, federal agents and police officers were watching the notorious night spot as part of a task force dubbed “Southern Tempest.” One officer alerted colleagues of the “intoxicated” men, who drove off and were driving “erratically,” the close-out report said.
Three unmarked undercover vehicles, lights flashing, pursued McNeil’s Kia Sorrento. An SUV driven by federal agent Timothy Scott overtook the car and stopped abruptly, boxing in the two men, according to the memo. Goyos jumped out of the SUV, gun drawn, and approached the driver’s door. Other officers heard Goyos identify himself and yell “show me your hands” and “don’t do it” before firing three rounds, the memo said.
“Agent Scott estimated the passage of approximately one-and-a-half to two seconds between Detective Goyos’ commands and the gunshots,” the report noted.
The fatal shot punctured McNeil’s left upper back. From the angle of the bullet, the Miami-Dade medical examiner’s office concluded McNeil was likely reaching to the floorboard where the cellphones had fallen.
Prosecutors noted that McNeil’s only potential criminal conduct was driving under the influence or resisting arrest without violence by failing to obey a lawful command. But if Goyos had been charged, he could likely have proved that McNeil disobeyed his commands. And because “it is established that criminal suspects often conceal or store firearms under the seats of their vehicles,” Goyos would be successful in claiming he was in fear for his life, the report said.
Attorney Bill Matthewman, who represents Goyos, said: “The death of any young man in our community is always a tragedy and our heart goes out to the family of Mr. McNeil. However, Office Goyos’ actions that day were legally justified and lawful.”
The release of Thursday’s close-out memo comes at a politically sensitive time for Fernandez Rundle, the longtime state attorney who is running in a closed primary against fellow Democrat Rod Vereen.
Vereen, who is African-American and a distant cousin of McNeil, is hoping to win with much of the black Democratic vote, a bloc that in the past has supported the incumbent.
Vereen’s campaign, which has the endorsement of Miami-Dade’s police union, did not criticize the close-out memo but noted that “there needs to be more of a connection between the community and police so that these sorts of incidents do not occur in the future. Another son has lost his father.”