April 3, 2013

Most records in Miami Beach Urban Beach Week police shooting to remain secret

The majority of the evidence in the 2011 Urban Beach Week shooting will remain exempt from public view because of an ongoing police investigation.

Miami Beach police must release an autopsy report, 911 and radio dispatch calls and other recordings from the South Beach police shooting that killed a motorist and wounded three bystanders during the 2011 Memorial Day weekend, a judge ruled Wednesday.

But the majority of the evidence — including the lead detective’s draft report detailing how 12 police officers unleashed more than 100 rounds on busy Collins Avenue — will remain secret as allowed by state law as authorities finish their criminal investigation, the judge ruled.

The probe, which will end with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office deciding if police officers were justified in firing their weapons, could take up to another year to finish.

Miami-Dade Judge Victoria Sigler’s ruling was only a partial victory for the wounded bystanders and relatives of slain Raymond Herisse, whom had asked for a broader release of records, claiming the police probe was dragging out “in bad faith.”

“We argued that there was ample testimony and evidence of this investigation being unnecessarily stalled,” said Miami lawyer L. Elijah Stiers, who represents wounded bystander Carlson Saint Louis.

“Moreover, there was no indication given whatsoever that any arrests will be made or that charges will be brought in the foreseeable future against the 12 Miami Beach and Hialeah officers who shot up the streets.”

It was on May 30, 2011 that officers tried to stop Herisse’s four-door Hyundai during Urban Beach Week, a hip-hop themed series of events that attracts tens of thousands of young people to Miami Beach for non-stop partying.

For years, the event and crime associated with the revelry has rankled some Beach residents while civil rights leaders say police have been heavy handed in dealing with the mostly African-American crowd.

At the time, Miami Beach police said Herisse ignored orders to pull over, hitting an officer and almost hitting several others as he sped down Collins, slamming into barricades and cars.

Video shot from a nearby fifth-floor apartment and posted on YouTube shows the car speeding down Collins Avenue amid gunfire and skidding to a stop after four shots rang out. Officers surrounded the car with their guns drawn, and about a minute later fired a barrage of bullets.

Three days after the shooting, a black Berretta 92-F semiautomatic pistol was discovered hidden in the car, police said then. But it was unclear if Herisse ever wielded the weapon during the confrontation.

In all, seven Miami Beach officers and four from Hialeah opened fire. Critics say the shooting was an excessive use of force, and lawyers are particularly interested in ballistics reports that would identify which officer fired which bullets.

Last year, wounded bystanders Cedrick Perkins and Saint Louis, plus the family of Herisse filed a lawsuit against Miami Beach and Hialeah seeking the release of evidence gathered in the case.

Another wounded bystander, Sarah Garcia, has filed a negligence lawsuit against the cities — a case on hold until all the records are released.

In Miami-Dade, prosecutors review every police shooting to see if an officer broke state law in firing a weapon. In Florida, on-duty officers are generally given wide leeway in using deadly force to protect themselves or others — and prosecutors statewide, including here, virtually never charge cops for manslaughter or murder.

Police critics have bemoaned the lack of information on the shootings released by authorities and delays in ruling on police shootings.

The state attorney’s office is currently reviewing 56 fatal police shootings from all local Miami-Dade law enforcement agencies, many of them from the past two years, according to an office spokesman.

In this case, the extensive crime scene and large amount of physical evidence meant the case’s lead detective did not finish his 96-page report until September, Miami Beach Sgt. Howard Bennett testified Wednesday.

But that report is still being reviewed and edited by police supervisors in the chain of command before being turned over to prosecutors, Bennett told the judge.

Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Phil Maniatty testified that he cannot write his own memo — and a committee of senior prosecutors cannot decide on possible charges against officers — without that key report.

“In all cases in which there has been a police shooting, the document does become public,” Maniatty said of the memo ruling on whether an officer is justified in using deadly force. “It’s important for anyone reading the document to understand the decision.”

Judge Sigler on Wednesday clearly seemed bothered by the police report languishing on a supervisor’s desk. But she also was uncomfortable in deciding how long is too long for a criminal investigation to run its course.

She ruled that Miami Beach police was conducting its investigation “in good faith,” but ordered the autopsy released, 911 calls and videos obtained by police, including the ones posted on YouTube.

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