Miami Beach has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the police investigation into the death of 18-year-old graffiti artist Israel Hernandez-Llach.
The teen died early Tuesday morning after police officer, Jorge Mercado shot him in the chest with a Taser.
Officers said Hernandez-Llach fled from police after they spotted him painting graffiti on a vacant McDonald’s building. Officer Jorge Mercado, who discharged his Taser, has been placed on paid administrative leave, pending the outcome of the investigation.
The FDLE was brought on to ensure that Miami Beach Police’s internal investigation is “objective, thorough and transparent,” said Assistant Police Chief Mark Overton.
He also offered new details regarding the police account of Hernandez-Llach’s death, including the fact that the teen fell face down on the ground with the darts from the stun device still in his chest.
Medical studies and experts suggest that, under such circumstances, there is an increased risk that a stun device will cause cardiac arrest, even when the victim has no history of heart disease.
Friends who were with Hernandez-Llach the night of his death admit they had smoked marijuana, but deny using other drugs.
Overton said the cause of Hernandez-Llach’s death will not be fully understood until the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner completes a toxicology report, which will take four to six weeks.
Meanwhile, the police department extended its condolences to Hernandez-Llach’s family.
“It’s a tragedy,” Overton said. “There are no words one can say to a family that has lost a child. That’s why we’re just as anxious as everyone else to find out what happened.”
The State Attorney’s Office is also participating in the investigation, which Miami Beach Police’s internal affairs unit will lead, Overton said.
Miami Beach Police has had its share of controversies in recent years, with its officers coming under scrutiny in dozens of incidents.
In March 2012, a Miami Beach cop was caught on camera speeding down a crowded stretch of beach in his squad car so fast the cruiser went airborne. The video was posted on YouTube.
Another officer another was investigated over allegations he was drank beer while riding as a passenger in his squad car.
On Memorial Day weekend in 2011, four bystanders were injured when Miami Beach and Hialeah police officers fired more than 100 bullets at 22-year-old Boynton Beach man, killing him. Officers said he had been speeding down crowded Collins Avenue and refused orders to pull over.
In 2011, an officer got on his police department all-terrain vehicle with a woman he’d just met at a party and took a drunken joyride down the beach, and ran over two beachgoers, injuring both.
And in 2009, two officers were accused of beating a handcuffed gay man in Flamingo Park on South Beach and then arresting a witness. Both were fired.
In this latest case, police have reviewed evidence, gathered testimony from every officer at the scene, except Mercado. He has not been interviewed because if evidence shows he acted improperly, he may be subject to criminal charges. Overton said the officer will be interviewed at the conclusion of the investigation.
Based on the evidence so far, police say Hernandez-Llach was running toward Mercado – and away from other officers – when the taser struck him in the chest and discharged electricity for approximately six seconds. Mercado had repeatedly ordered Hernandez-Llach to stop running, but the teen ignored the orders, police said. Mercado shot the stun device when Hernandez-Llach was about eight to 10 feet away and both men were still moving. Hernandez-Llach dropped to his knees, then fell face foward onto the ground.
“When taser darts are shot into the chest, particularly over the left chest where the heart is, there is a definite risk of provoking cardiac arrest,” according to Douglas Zipes, a cardiologist and professor at Indiana University who wrote a paper on the subject for the American Heart Association.
The risk is increased if a person winds up lying face down.
“The heart moves almost one centimeter closer to the chest wall in a prone individual,” Zipes said. “One centimeter is an appreciable distance, and the whole point of the Taser in terms of risk is how close it is to the heart.”
Overton defended the department’s use of Tasers, saying they are proven to be safe and effective.
“We’ve been using Tasers on the street for many years,” he said. “There have been hundreds of incidents that haven’t led to consequences like this.”
But others have criticized the use of the Taser against Hernandez-Llach.
“If Miami Beach Police policy allows the use of Tasers in a situation like this, reforming that policy is a good place to start,” the Florida chapter of the ACLU said Thursday in a statement.
The department’s rules on physical force say that a police officer should use a Taser against a person “who is not in the physical control of the officer yet poses a threat.”
The department’s investigation would have to be concluded before they could be certain whether Hernandez-Llach posed a threat, Overton said.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Jonathan Simmons contributed to this report.