Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Taser death tip of the iceberg

 

OUR OPINION: Latest troubling case warrants Justice Department probe of Miami Beach police

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement responded quickly to public calls that it review the death of graffiti artist Israel Hernandez-Llach. He was Tasered by a Miami Beach police officer last week as he allegedly tried to elude arrest for “tagging” a fast-food restaurant early one morning. In requesting assistance from FDLE, City Manager Jimmy Morales made the right call.

FDLE’s presence should offer some relief to the young man’s friends, family and the public. However, Miami Beach taxpayers — and visitors, for that matter — should be concerned that the request speaks poorly of the police department’s ability to investigate its own lapses with integrity and transparency. FDLE must bring both values to the table.

Mr. Morales diplomatically said that he has “complete confidence in the integrity and capacity of the Miami Beach Police Department to conduct a fair and thorough investigation.” Unfortunately, others can’t be so sure.

By defacing a North Beach McDonald’s, as police said he was, Mr. Hernandez-Llach was breaking the law. Yes, he was an award-winning artist; yes, his talent was celebrated and his career path bright.

But officers were not wrong to intervene. When artists festoon buildings with elaborate murals in Miami’s Wynwood Art District, the most responsible have asked the property owners’ permission first.

But that’s not “tagging,” which is rightly considered vandalism.

Once he was seen by two Beach police officers painting on the building, Mr. Hernandez-Llach allegedly ran off, then ran back toward the officers even when ordered to stop. Officer Jorge Mercado fired a stun-gun, striking the 18-year-old in the chest. The teen fell.

According to a friend who had been acting as the tagger’s lookout, by the time he caught up with Mr. Hernandez-Llach, the teen was face-down on the ground, not moving. Then this: The friend says that the officers were celebrating the “get,” high-fiving each other over the graffiti artist’s prone body and making snarky, wholly inappropriate comments — to a member of the public, no less.

Medics arrived and used a defibrillator. But they could not revive the teen.

Officer Mercado has since been put on paid administrative leave. His record is dotted with complaints of excessive force, battery and lack of courtesy. Little has stuck, though.

Mr. Hernandez-Llach’s questionable death is just one more blot that the Beach police department has to rub out. Are the officers that have exhibited egregiously — and public — bad behavior the norm, or are they a tiny fraction besmirching a department of outstanding officers?

The department violated a court order to turn over records to plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case of a 2011 police shooting that killed one suspect and wounded four bystanders at the tail end of Urban Beach Weekend; another officer partied — while on duty — with a group of women, then got into an all-terrain vehicle and ran over two beachgoers.

Investigators will have to determine if the use of the Taser was justified, given that Mr. Hernandez-Llach was not committing a violent act. But this case is only the latest of the police department’s systemic missteps.

Now that the U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on the Miami Police Department’s problems, forcing change, it should cross the causeway and turn its attention to another troubled department.

Editor’s note: This editorial was updated and corrected on Aug. 12, shortly after posting, to remove a sentence about an incident that occurred outside Miami Beach’s jurisdiction. This is the correct version.

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