Shootings by police put lives in danger
11/10/2002 5:53 PM
03/13/2008 6:12 PM
In dozens of shootings since 1990, city of Miami police officers have shot unarmed people in the back, fired wildly at fleeing cars, and shot indiscriminately even when it put innocent lives at risk, a Herald review of every bullet fired by officers shows.
Yet top commanders, including current Police Chief Raúl Martinez, took no disciplinary action in 46 cases in which evidence strongly suggests that the shootings were questionable or that the facts contradicted versions given by officers, The Herald found.
Most of those shootings came years before 13 Miami police officers were indicted by federal prosecutors in five different incidents and charged with concocting evidence and planting guns. Martinez acknowledges some past failures but defends the department, saying officers in the 1990s were responsible for fighting crime in one of America's most violent cities.
He is now pledging reforms.
But the review shows that the questionable shooting incidents may be more numerous than the federal indictments allege. And Martinez's role in the failure to address those cases - in which people were killed or put in danger - has raised serious questions about the chief's ability to curb the problem.
Indeed, for more than a decade, investigators and brass dismissed violations of policy, signed off on uncontrolled firing and rarely challenged officers' accounts of the shootings, even in the face of contradictory evidence.
That failure to confront the undisciplined use of deadly force led to more bad shootings, more failures of oversight, and ultimately more deaths. Eventually, critics contend, a culture of permissiveness spread through the entire department.
Martinez admits it was, at times, hard to reach the truth and says supervisors tried to carefully consider shootings and come to fair judgments. But for five years, from 1992 to 1997, Martinez was at the helm of a system of failed oversight. Eighteen of the questionable shootings, or 39 percent, were cleared when Martinez himself headed the Firearms Review Board, a panel of three assistant chiefs judging shooting cases. In at least three of those 18 shootings, evidence suggests that guns were planted.
A 12-YEAR DEATH TOLL
33 people killed under questionable circumstances
The Herald examined 180 intentional-shooting cases, combed through hundreds of court files, and conducted dozens of interviews with witnesses, police officers, victims and suspects.
Among the findings:
* Between 1990 and 2001, Miami officers shot 15 people from the back in questionable circumstances, killing five. There were 22 shootings in which the suspects were clearly unarmed, and a dozen others in which the officers claimed they saw guns - but no guns were found.
All told, Miami officers shot and killed 33 people in those dozen years - 11 under questionable circumstances.
* They fired more than 300 bullets at 33 moving cars in spite of policies strongly discouraging it. In four of those cases, people were killed.
* At other shooting scenes, the large number of bullets fired indiscriminately suggests that officers often lost control and had no line of vision on their intended targets. Six times, they wounded or killed bystanders.
More times than not, in fact, officers missed their intended targets and sent bullets flying, raising questions about whether they should have started shooting at all. Miami police fired about 1,300 bullets at suspects in those 12 years, and missed more than 1,100 times. At least 20 of those bullets ended up inside nearby homes, including one case in which a woman found a police bullet in her microwave.
Officers have blown out their own windshields at least six times. They have shot their own dashboards, their own car doors. At least three times, they have even shot at each other by mistake.
"In more than 90 percent of the projectiles fired by the Miami Police Department, the projectiles were trucking around the countryside and looking for somebody to hit, " retired Lt. John Campbell said during a deposition in a lawsuit against the city. He added that he repeatedly questioned the department's tolerant attitude. "I have a problem with that."
* Internal affairs and homicide investigators, in two dozen cases, ignored or discounted contradictions in officers' accounts or physical evidence that suggested the shootings could not have happened as officers claimed.
Sometimes, officers claimed the suspects had fired first or threatened them with guns, but bullet casings weren't in the right places and no fingerprints were found on the suspects' alleged guns.
* Miami officers almost never face discipline for shooting at suspects, even in cases where policy is apparently violated. Officers were cleared in 91 percent of deadly-force cases, statistics compiled by The Herald show. No officer was fired and just 14 have been issued reprimands. In five of those cases, that punishment was later reversed.
* Miami has 15 officers who have had four or more career shootings. One Miami officer has shot at seven people on the job, killing four - the last a skinny 19-year-old without a gun, who was shot as he jumped over a fence and tried to pull up his pants. Another officer shot at six people and killed two.
* Department leaders at times disregarded suggestions of reform. Some department commanders, alarmed at what seemed to be instances of wild gunplay, pushed to retrain officers who were involved in suspect shootings.
"I was unhappy personally, professionally with the decision-making in some of the shootings that I was seeing, " said Campbell, a now retired homicide commander, who suggested sending training officers to shooting scenes so mistakes wouldn't be repeated.
"I was told not to do that anymore, " Campbell said. The fear: "Our training officers would become witnesses against the city."
POLICE DEBATED ISSUE
Each shooting justified, according to Miami chief
The apparent lack of control has been a point of internal debate for years, with reform initiatives going unheeded for fear of civil lawsuits and the wrath of the police union, according to Campbell, a former training supervisor.
Martinez said that if there was a pattern of suspect shootings, it went unnoticed.
"Obviously, in hindsight, you wish you would have asked more questions, but I can't remember a case where I was uncomfortable with my finding at the time, " Martinez said. "Maybe we didn't look hard enough at the whole picture. Maybe we were wrong just looking at them case by case. Maybe we didn't do a good enough job looking at how many were the same kinds of shootings.
"But when you look at each individual shooting, with the information we had at that time, it was justified."
Martinez said the department has since tightened its shooting policy and is working to improve its internal investigations.
"We have come a long way from where we were before, " he said.
The Herald evaluated all intentional shootings, hits and misses, because all are potentially deadly - depending only on marksmanship and luck. As virtually all departments do, Miami trains officers to shoot at the middle of the torso, because those shots have the best chance of hitting their mark and stopping the person. Warning shots are not allowed.
Police are supposed to shoot at people only to save themselves or someone else from serious harm. The rules on when not to shoot are, by necessity, more vague. However, national guidelines have long been established:
Don't shoot at or from moving cars. It almost never works and is dangerous to bystanders. Don't shoot at petty criminals or suspects who are running away; they pose no real threat. Don't shoot if you don't have a target and a clear line of sight. And never shoot when innocent people might be imperiled.
In Miami, those guidelines were repeatedly ignored.
At the same time, in more than half the cases reviewed by The Herald, the shootings appeared to be unavoidable.
In dozens of unexpected, life-and-death confrontations, it is difficult to second-guess officers' decisions to pull the trigger. Usually there is no question that officers were right to intervene. Almost always, the intended targets were committing crimes and trying to get away.
At issue is whether the officers' decisions to shoot were reasonable, or whether they brazenly and recklessly sent bullets flying, then were not held accountable for mistakes - even when other lives were put at risk.
Shootings should have sent warning signals
The Herald review shows that the department overlooked problems in suspect shootings for years - shootings that should have sent out warning signals that something had gone awry:
* In 1990, Officer Carl Seals, in his sixth career shooting, fired six shots and hit 14-year-old Xavier Roberts' arm while the boy was running away with a bag of marijuana.
According to Seals, the boy ignored an order to stop and reached for his waistband. Seals fired. Then Roberts threw a plastic bag of pot over a fence and kept running. Seals fired again.
There was no evidence that Roberts had a gun when he was shot. Furthermore, the officer said he didn't actually see a gun in the boy's hand when he fired.
The lead homicide investigator later criticized the shooting in court proceedings.
"I have a couple problems with it being justified, in my eyes, which is probably going to get me in trouble, " Sgt. Thomas Watterson said in depositions. Watterson, since retired, said he saw no threat when Seals fired the second round of shots at the fleeing suspect.
"I have a problem with the additional rounds myself, " Watterson said.
The Firearms Review Board disagreed. Seals stayed on the streets. Years later, he was forced to resign after he used a controversial choke hold that put a suspect in a permanent coma. That case cost the city $7.5 million in a settlement with the family.
* Again, in 1990, officers Juan Mendez and Jose Quintero fired at an armed security guard in a case of mistaken identity. Just after midnight that night, a call went out that an officer had been shot at by a robbery suspect.
The officers ended up searching in a railroad yard, looking for a black man with a handgun. They spotted Gabriel Castellon - a white Hispanic holding a shotgun - and ordered him to halt. Castellon, worried because he was in the country illegally, turned and ran instead, still holding the shotgun. Mendez and Quintero fired, shooting him once in the back.
The real robbery suspect was never caught. A Miami-Dade civil jury ruled that the police were negligent, and awarded Castellon $550,000 - more than his lawyers requested. A judge later knocked the award down to $125,000 because of Castellon's immigration status.
The Firearms Review Board disagreed and ruled the shooting justified. Quintero is among the officers indicted last year. Quintero's lawyer in the federal case and Mendez say they acted appropriately in all of their shootings.
* In 1993, officer Thomas Laura recognized two robbery suspects in their getaway car. He stopped them and ordered them out of the car at gunpoint. Veronica Colon, the passenger, disobeyed the command and reached under the seat.
Laura fired once. The bullet traveled through the rear window and the headrest and into the back of her shoulder.
She was not armed. She told police she was hiding money and jewelry under the seat.
In this case, the Firearms Review Board, chaired by Martinez, found that "the mere crouching of a female . . . does not justify the use of deadly force." The department did try to dock the officer for 80 hours. But the city's Civil Service Board, an appeals body, ordered the discipline rescinded.
* On June 19, 1993, officers Kelvin Harris and Clifford Gibson fired at least 19 times, killing 17-year-old bystander Laurence Johnson. It is one of the department's most perplexing unsolved cases. To this day, investigators say they cannot determine which officer fired the deadly shot. Both went undisciplined and returned to work.
Harris has never given an official statement to homicide investigators.
Both were on plainclothes duty when they were sent to investigate reports that a group of young men was firing shots into the air. Gibson said he exchanged gunfire with a suspect. Harris said an armed man charged him with a gun.
In the end, one suspect was shot in the hand and the bystander, Johnson, was shot in the back. Neither was armed.
Investigators scoured the scene, looking for casings from Harris' gun, and found none - until 20 days later, when Harris' lawyer called them back to the alleyway. There, in plain sight, were nine casings from Harris' gun.
Prosecutors suspected, but couldn't prove, evidence tampering. Investigators couldn't prove who fired the fatal shot.
"I can't believe they can't force their own people to talk, " said Eva Mae Peterson, who helped raise Johnson. "This whole thing is a crime and a coverup. My boy is dead and there's nothing I can do. It's outrageous."
Miami's Police Firearms Review Board never considered the case because homicide and internal affairs investigators were so stymied.
* In 1994, officers Alejandro Macias and Francisco Casanovas fired a combined 24 shots during an eight-block car chase through the residential streets of Little Havana.
The shooting began after a carload of robbery suspects spotted the undercover police vehicles of Casanovas and Macias and fled, according to reports. The officers, in separate cars, said they were fired upon and fired back. Casanovas was firing through his own windshield; Macias was hanging out the window of his car.
During the chase, several citizens - including a woman and her infant in a stroller - were dangerously close to the shooting, reports say. One bystander told The Herald that he and his young nephew had to run to avoid gunfire.
One suspect was grazed in the forehead. Witnesses said they saw the suspects with guns, and police said three guns were found. But there is no evidence in police reports that the guns were ever fired, as officers said.
Macias is among the officers charged in two suspected gun-planting cases. He, like nearly all of the officers named in these shootings, did not respond to requests from The Herald for comment.
The shooting was never reviewed by the department's Firearms Review Board. Both shootings were ruled justified in a short memorandum from a supervisor, Paul Shephard.
NORMS OF JUDGMENT
Police officials cite different standards in '90s
"There certainly appears to be shootings in here that appear to be questionable, " said Assistant Chief James Chambliss, reviewing a list of shootings provided by The Herald.
But he and other top brass say it's not fair to use current standards to judge past shootings. Officers had more discretion in the 1990s to shoot at an escaping person if they thought the suspect was armed, or a violent criminal.
"The overriding mission of the 1990s was to get the bad guys, " Chief Martinez said. "I think that was a reflection of the level of crime we were dealing with. We had a different policy and we held to the standards of that policy."
5 questionable shootings came during that period
At least five suspect shootings came during the department's high-profile war on tourist robberies.
"In the '90s, you couldn't stop a car in Little Havana that didn't have a gun, " said Al Cotera, head of the Miami chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. He said many of the shootings on The Herald's list came from special units that targeted violent offenders.
"I think we had to be aggressive because the bad guys were aggressive, too, " Cotera said, adding that he has seen no sign that the department has been lax on shooting discipline.
But some internal critics said those units at times went too far.
"I think some of these guys enjoyed shooting at people at just no cost whatsoever, because they would find a way to justify it, " said Miami police Capt. David Rivero.
"[The suspects] were robbers, they were no-good criminals and no one would care if they got killed or not."
As the decade went on, the shootings became wilder and some officers became increasingly brazen - and even corrupt, according to prosecutors handling last year's federal indictment of 13 officers.
In 1995, Derrick Wiltshire and Antonio Young, two teenage robbers, were shot in the back in a spray of 37 bullets. Both died.
The seven officers at the scene that night said the pair had smashed a tourist's car window, snatched her purse, led them on a chase and flashed pistols as they jumped over the side of the Interstate 395 overpass downtown. But the guns were really planted, two officers involved in that shooting say.
Then, less than a year later, Richard Brown, 73, was shot at 122 times and died in his tiny two-bedroom apartment. During the shooting, his 14-year-old great-granddaughter cowered on the bathroom floor as bullets pierced the walls around her.
Five officers claimed they returned fire after Brown, suspected of drug dealing, fired at them first. But physical evidence and witness statements contradicted their stories.
Officers in both the Brown and I-395 shootings have now been indicted by federal authorities, accused of manufacturing evidence or planting guns to justify the killings. They deny wrongdoing.
Both of those shootings were initially cleared by the Firearms Review Board under Martinez, part of a larger pattern of failures in accountability, The Herald found. In many shootings, the department's internal probes were perfunctory, with investigators feeding leading questions.
"Everyone goes out there and assumes everything is good and there's no problem, " said Miami police Maj. Miguel Exposito, now in charge of the department's training division.
"When we go out to other crimes, cops do not take anything at face value. But, when we look at ourselves, we don't look at it that way, " said Exposito, who spent four years at the head of Internal Affairs.
Martinez and other top supervisors argue that the Firearms Review Board was diligent in pursuing truth, but was sometimes stymied by poor investigations or conspiracies by officers. And for years, they acknowledged, they found it difficult to believe that their own officers could be lying. "Maybe I'm in the minority, " Martinez said. "I would have never thought an officer would do that. Maybe I was naive."
Herald database editor Jason Grotto contributed to this report.
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