When 18-year-old street artist Israel Hernandez-Llach died this month after being Tasered by a Miami Beach police officer, it renewed a fierce debate about the safety of stun guns and their use by police.
But it also amplified broader, longstanding complaints that the Miami Beach Police Department is plagued by a culture of violence and impunity.
“I advise a lot of young people to be careful when they go to South Beach,” said John Contini, a lawyer who sued the department in the fatal shootings of Husien Shehada and Lawrence McCoy, two of the department’s most recent controversies. “Not because they’re going to be exposed to danger by other civilians. I tell them to be careful of the police.”
The city’s new police chief, Ray Martinez, says he is aware of the department’s reputation — and trying to increase accountability. He and his deputy chief, Mark Overton, raised the number of internal affairs investigators from four to seven. They shifted the responsibility of making findings on the investigations from the investigators themselves, all of whom are sergeants, to a panel comprising Overton and three majors.
And they broadened the unit’s scope, allowing it to look at minor allegations that were previously sent directly to patrol supervisors.
And, in response to Hernandez-Llach’s death, Martinez and Overton are reviewing the department’s policies regarding Tasers.
“But I don’t want to give the impression that there’s anything wrong with our policy,” Martinez said.
Internal police records — use-of-force policies, internal-affairs files and department-wide statistics — suggest that the agency’s troubles arise both from its written policies and its disciplinary procedures. The policies meet national accreditation standards, yet they do not control the use of force as proactively as some of the busiest police agencies in the country. The department’s disciplinary procedures reflect a tendency to clear officers of wrongdoing even in the face of ambiguous or damning evidence.
In the summer of 2007, Milton Rodriguez and his family came to Miami from Orlando to buy a car for his 16-year-old daughter. The family booked a hotel room on Miami Beach and decided to spend Friday night strolling.
As they walked on Collins Avenue near 14th Street, a man aggressively tried to sell Rodriguez marijuana, at one point stuffing a baggie in his hand. Rodriguez, 45 at the time, said he gave the bag back and berated the man until he left.
Seconds later, as the family crossed Collins Avenue, two police officers in plainclothes jumped out of an unmarked car and grabbed Rodriguez and his 20-year-old son, Rodriguez said.
“At no time did they identify themselves as police,” Rodriguez said. “I thought we were getting robbed.”
Rodriguez yelled at the cops, asking what was going on, and scuffled briefly with a detective named Jose Reina.
“Then he grabs me and throws me up against a car, and then he starts Tasing me,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez saw that the man who was holding his son had taken out a badge.
“As soon as I saw that badge, I went down,” Rodriguez said. They brought him back to his feet, and Rodriguez kept arguing.
“So again they threw me up against the car, and again they started Tasing me,” he said.