Miami cop fired for killing unarmed man wins back his job

Officer Reynaldo Goyos said he felt his life was in danger when he fired three shots into Travis McNeil’s Kia Sorrento.

08/09/2014 5:36 PM

08/09/2014 8:47 PM

A Miami police detective fired for killing an unarmed man three years ago has won his job back.

Officer Reynaldo Goyos fatally shot Travis McNeil and wounded friend Kareem Williams in the winter of 2011 as they sat in a car in Little Haiti following a brief police chase. The shooting was the final one in a string of deadly encounters between Miami police officers and black men that led to intense public uproar and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Goyos wasn’t prosecuted for the shooting. But in early 2013, he was fired by Police Chief Manuel Orosa after a department Firearms Review Board ruled the shooting was “unjustified” and said the evidence surrounding the shooting was inconsistent with Goyos’ account of the event, in which he said he saw McNeil grabbing a black object.

An arbitrator who reviewed the case, however, overturned Goyos’ firing Friday and ordered the department to return him to his job no later than Aug. 13, with full back pay. Sgt. Javier Ortiz, president of Miami’s Fraternal Order of Police, called the ruling vindication and said the firing was political.

“Imagine calling the police and in the face of danger, our police officers run and hide. We have no duty to retreat and as police officers we don’t shy away in the face of danger,” Ortiz stated in a press release, adding: “Unlike some of our policy makers, we aren’t cowards.”

Attempts to reach McNeil’s mother, Sheila McNeil, were unsuccessful Saturday. But when Goyos was fired, she told The Herald “it doesn’t help my son a whole lot. Nothing will bring Travis back.”

On the night of the shooting, Goyos, at the time a six-year veteran, was taking part in Operation Southern Tempest, aimed at taking guns from Miami street gangs. Joined by officers from Hialeah, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations, Miami police were targeting gang members, some of whom they believed spent time at the Take One Lounge on Northeast 79th Street. An hour before midnight, McNeil, 28, and Williams, 30, were kicked out of the lounge for being drunk and peeled off in McNeil’s Kia Sorrento, but not before an officer in the parking lot radioed other officers that the men were leaving.

Police and special agents said McNeil sped through a red light and swerved around the road before three unmarked vehicles with flashing lights blocked off his path at Northeast 75th Street and North Miami Avenue. The Chevrolet Suburban in which Goyos was a front-seat passenger stopped almost parallel to the left of the Kia, which Goyos said left him vulnerable. So he jumped out the Suburban and approached McNeil’s car on the passenger side with his gun drawn, yelling for McNeil to show him his hands.

“At that time, I looked at the driver. He was staring right at me. He looked like he wasn't paying attention, like he’s very incoherent, [he] was disobeying my commands,” Goyos told an internal affairs investigator. “At that time, when he — he [the driver] made a sudden movement to — he dug down, and he reached towards his waistband pocket area.”

Goyos yelled “Don’t do it!” and then opened fire, striking Williams twice and McNeil once. The latter, according to the review board, was shot in the back left shoulder. The only dark object found in the car was a cellphone, likely McNeil’s.

The incident began and ended in a matter of seconds.

“I felt my life was in danger,” Goyos said, adding that he never tried to shoot Williams.

The McNeil shooting was the seventh fatal shooting of young black men by Miami police officers in just eight months, a string of violence that raised tensions in several neighborhoods and caused a political backlash at City Hall that would ultimately cost then-Chief Miguel Exposito his job. The Department of Justice launched an investigation and determined a year ago that the police department had engaged in a pattern of excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution. A federal judge began monitoring the force.

Amid the then-ongoing Justice probe, the police department’s review board — composed of top brass — unanimously found the shooting was in violation of the department’s deadly force policy because neither Goyos nor anyone else “was in imminent danger of death or serious physical injury” when the officer opened fire. The review board also ruled that the officer should have never approached the vehicle but should have retreated, and that Goyos’ testimony that he saw McNeil grab a black object wasn’t consistent with the man being shot in the back.

But Medical Examiner Emma Lew testified that McNeil was shot through his left side, not his back. And in his ruling, Arbitrator Martin Soll said Goyos legitimately believed he was in danger, and that the Homeland Security agent driving the Suburban put the Miami officer in a position that forced him to engage McNeil.

Soll also said department policy doesn’t require officers to retreat. He ruled that the department did not prove that Goyos should have been fired, and said all records of his firing should be removed from his personnel jacket.

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