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.
“I passed out,” he said. “My family thought I was dead.”
When Detective Reina was interviewed by internal affairs, he said Rodriguez had elbowed him in chest. But Rodriguez’s family saw it differently: Rodriguez was argumentative but peaceful, and the officers simply didn’t like his attitude, they said.
In his arrest report and in other statements shortly after the incident, Reina said he used his Taser only once. But internal affairs examined the stun gun’s cartridge and confirmed that it was used twice.
Nonetheless, nearly two years after the incident, internal affairs exonerated Reina for the Tasering. In their conclusions, they did not address conflicts over how many times he used the Taser, nor whether Reina and his partner had identified themselves as police.
There have been other cases where officers were exonerated after using Tasers under circumstances where the threat from the target was dubious.
In 2005, an officer Tasered a handcuffed schizophrenic man four times in the back of a police car. The man had kicked out a window of the cruiser and was rocking back and forth, holding his breath.
In 2008, an officer used his Taser five times against a man lying on the floor of the South Beach art gallery where he worked. The cops claimed the man was resisting violently, but surveillance video showed him lying still.
“They kind of use them like Pez dispensers,” said Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, a member of the Latino Justice Board and former president of the ACLU’s Greater Miami chapter. “I think the Miami Beach department looks at Tasers as non-lethal force, when in fact they’re less-than-lethal.”
The difference, according to a 2011 report by the Department of Justice, is that less-than-lethal weapons “have the potential to result in a fatal outcome” even when used properly.
The DOJ report, which suggests guidelines for Taser use by police, stresses that stun guns “should be used as a weapon of need, not a tool of convenience.”
Miami Beach Police Department statistics show that in 2012 its officers used Tasers 86 times, about 36 percent of the total reported cases involving force of any kind. That is more than six times the number of cases in which officers used pepper spray, another less-than-lethal weapon.
Compared to Miami Beach, other police departments are more restrictive when it comes to stun guns. In New York City, for example, only patrol supervisors and emergency services officers, who are trained in advanced tactics and equipment, are allowed to carry Tasers.
In Miami Beach, any police officer who goes through an eight-hour training session is allowed to carry a department-issued Taser.
The department defends its use of stun guns, saying it adheres to the standards of Taser International, the device’s manufacturer, and the Commission for the Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies.
“The Taser is a device that has saved countless lives,” said Deputy Chief Overton, adding that, before the Hernandez-Llach case, the department used Tasers for 10 years without incident.
LENIENT TASER POLICY
Miami Beach’s Taser policy reflects a broader lenience in its written use-of-force policies, especially when compared to other departments in busy urban areas.
The three largest departments in the country — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — all begin their use of force guidelines with firm reminders that excessive force will not be tolerated.
The NYPD specifically reminds officers that they are criminally and civilly liable for excessive force, and that officers are expected to intervene when they see brutality on the part of their colleagues.
By contrast, Miami Beach’s guidelines limit themselves from the beginning to explaining when force is justified: “when officers reasonably believe it to be necessary to affect an arrest or to defend themselves or another from bodily harm.”
Ray Taseff, a cooperating attorney in an ACLU suit against the department, said a police force’s written policies are important in establishing institutional control.
“The policy is the ultimate reflection of what the department’s priorities are,” Taseff said. “If there are strong, affirmative statements about force being used sparingly and only in necessary circumstances, those should be the first sentence of the policy.”
Yet most critics of the department say the problem lies less in the rules than in how — or whether — officers are disciplined when they break them.
“There’s a yahoo culture at the City of Miami Beach, where they tolerate all sorts of police behavior,” said John de Leon, a civil rights attorney and a former president of the Miami chapter of the ACLU. “Accountability is key. If complaints [against cops] are sustained and there’s discipline, you start creating a culture of accountability, which is how things actually start changing.”
According to police department statistics from the last 12 years, about 33 percent of internal affairs cases have been substantiated. However, the numbers do not show how many of those involved excessive force.
Moreover, a case can be closed as substantiated when only minor allegations are upheld, like failing to file paperwork, while actual claims of brutality are dismissed.
That was the case with Milton Rodriguez’s complaint, in which Detective Reina was exonerated for using his Taser but lightly disciplined for failing to file a use-of-force report.
Rodriguez also alleged that Reina hit him in the face with his police radio while he was handcuffed, that Reina and other officers punched and kicked him, and that Reina planted a rock of crack cocaine on him to justify the arrest.
Rodriguez was charged with purchasing and possessing drugs, resisting arrest and battery against a police officer.
‘BAD COPS, MAN’
“They were bad cops, man. Like one of those movies that you see,” he said. “That was a bad night.”
Alex Bello, president of Miami Beach’s Fraternal Order of Police, declined to comment on specifics of the past accusations against Reina because he said he hadn’t reviewed the detective’s personnel jacket. But he expressed confidence in the police department’s internal-affairs process and the protections that the union provides to officers.
"The department has its system in place to review internal matters, and if any issues come up during that process, then we have the ability to file a grievance and have an independent person review it," Bello said. "And what happens is, this independent person, who operates outside of any political pressure, hears our concerns and listens to the facts of the case, and that’s often when officers get cleared and get back to work."
Just eight days before Reina’s run-in with Rodriguez, as officers were arresting a man outside Club Mansion, an active duty Army sergeant named Kenneth Thompson told officers they were being too rough and took pictures with his phone.
Reina was accused of pushing Thompson against a wall and choking him. All of the allegations were deemed unsubstantiated.
Some five months later, on Dec. 9, 2007, Detective Reina chased an unarmed man named Eliseo La Bruno down the streets of South Beach and shot at him five times, striking him twice in the back, after the man engaged in a dispute with a cab driver, according to a lawsuit filed against Reina and the City of Miami Beach.
La Bruno, who survived the shooting, claimed Reina had never identified himself as a police officer, leading him to fear he was being retaliated against for the fight.
The La Bruno lawsuit was settled confidentially in April of last year. The Miami Beach Police Department confirmed that Reina is still employed as an officer there.