The year began and ended with controversial police shooting deaths captured on video that made national headlines. In between, police shot and killed a war veteran who held up a Wendy’s manager at gunpoint, a homeless man wielding a pipe at a public park, and a taxicab driver who almost bit off a cop’s finger.
The first fatal police shooting of 2015 in Miami-Dade County involved a bipolar schizophrenic named Lavall Hall, whose life ended after he swung a broomstick handle at police. Another victim was Cornelius Brown, 25, who jumped on the hood of a patrol car, broke its windshield and was shot to death.
Edward Foster III allegedly pointed a gun at an officer in South Miami-Dade, who then opened fire from inside his vehicle and killed the Homestead man. Foster’s death was at least the third time Homestead police Officer Anthony Green had shot and killed a man while on duty in the past decade. He was cleared of any wrongdoing in the earlier shootings.
In total, officers from six police departments shot and killed 14 people in Miami-Dade last year. Seven others were shot and survived. One man, Maximo Rabasa, 52, died a day after a Miami police officer struck him with a Taser. Rabasa went after an officer with a knife. The officer locked himself in his patrol car and called for backup.
Last year’s shooting deaths, whose numbers were provided by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, fall in line with recent years: Eight people were shot and killed by police in Miami-Dade in 2014 and 15 people were killed by police gunfire in 2013.
Police shootings have made headlines in recent years, fueled largely by questionable confrontations captured on video cameras in North Charleston, South Carolina; Ferguson, Missouri; and Chicago. Major protests erupted in several cities, with Ferguson turning into a full-blown riot broadcast for all the world to see.
Judd Rosen, an attorney representing the families of two of last year’s Miami-Dade victims, pinned the national outcry on a more level playing field. More often, the public gets to view the grisly scenes through dashcam, cellphone and police camera videos. Before, he said, the incidents were explained to the public by the officers who pulled the trigger, and those surrounding them.
“The cellphones bring to life the true picture of what’s going on in the streets,” Rosen said. “In certain cases it can vindicate the cops. But now they have to deal with it, whether they were right or wrong.”
John Rivera, who oversees the union that represents Miami-Dade police, the largest agency in the county, compared the public viewing of police shootings to open heart surgery — a messy necessity people may get queasy viewing.
“I think in some cases it’s good. In some instances it can be bad. And in other instances it can be ugly,” said Rivera, who leads Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association. “The streets are getting meaner. Now people get to see the reality of how violent the streets are.”
In almost all of last year’s police shooting deaths, officers said they fired their guns fearing for their lives after the victim produced some type of weapon. Julien Joseph LaPierre, 40, who police said robbed a bank across the street from his home, was killed in his Miami Beach apartment in July. Police went there after identifying LaPierre as the bank robber. The officer who shot and killed LaPierre said he had a gun.
The shooting victims range in age from 15 to 59. All were men. Seven were black. Five were Hispanic. Two were non-Hispanic whites. Miami-Dade police killed seven. Miami Beach and Miami officers shot and killed two each. Miami Gardens, Homestead and Opa-locka police killed the others.
There’s no standard for investigating police shootings. Miami and Miami-Dade’s are looked at by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Smaller agencies like Opa-locka and Homestead are investigated by Miami-Dade police. Miami Gardens investigates its own. Miami Beach, which typically investigates its own shootings, has asked Miami-Dade to look at the December shooting death of convicted bank robber David Winesett — which was caught in stunningly clear video from someone’s cellphone and caused a national outcry.
Law enforcement rarely comments on open investigations. None of the 14 shootings had been cleared by mid January, which is fairly normal for investigations that can take years to conclude.
The youngest shooting victim of 2015 was Jorge Santiago Tapia, who was 15 when a Miami-Dade police officer spotted him outside a Walgreens he is alleged to have robbed in October. Police said they retrieved a gun next to the dead teen’s body.
The most bizarre shooting was the lone death in which the victim had no weapon. The confrontation was so strange the story blasted through cyberspace and cable television quicker than a speeding bullet.
Just before sunrise Sept. 28, Junior Prosper, 31, crashed his Yellow Cab into a light pole at the south entrance to Interstate 95 at Northwest 119th Street. The street was mostly empty. In the darkness — and alone — Prosper scurried up the ramp to the highway and was later found hiding behind some brush by a Miami-Dade police officer.
In the 47-second audio of the altercation caught by dispatchers, the officer — a nine-year veteran who has never been identified — is heard yelling, “Shots fired, shots fired.” Then this: “He bit my finger off.”
The finger was saved. Prosper was shot and killed.
Though all police shootings in Florida are investigated for excessive force, officers are rarely charged with criminal wrongdoing. Before last month’s grand jury criminal indictment of Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Peter Peraza — accused of shooting a man carrying an air gun and wearing ear buds — a Florida police officer had not been charged with using excessive force in 26 years.
Nationally, according to a Washington Post investigation, police shot and killed 986 people in 2015. Most were between 18 and 44. Non-Hispanic whites were killed at almost double the rate of blacks and three times the rate of Hispanics.
About one quarter of fatal police shootings nationwide involved a mentally ill victim. That was the case in last year’s first police shooting in Miami-Dade, when police Officer Eddo Trimino gunned down the shirtless Hall, 25, on a chilly morning in Miami Gardens.
Hall, who had recently been released from a mental health facility, was said to be threatening two officers with a broomstick handle. Trimino had killed a civilian before and was cleared and had been investigated for excessive force while working in Hialeah. Hall’s mother, Catherine Daniels, called police after failing to persuade her agitated son to come in from the cold. Hall had not taken his medication.
Video captured by a patrol car dashcam shows several flashes from the muzzle of Trimino’s gun. But the video leaves enough unseen to add even more controversy to the shooting. The officer backs away and fires his weapon after issuing stern commands that were disobeyed. Trimino’s partner Peter Ehrlich received stitches for a head wound.
The family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Trimino and the city of Miami Gardens. Attorney Glen Goldberg said Trimino and Ehrlich are expected to give depositions in early February. He said the Miami-Dade state attorney said its investigation would be done soon. A civil trial is set for December.
“ [Lavall Hall] committed no crime, had no firearm, no knife and was running away,” Goldberg said. “They didn’t know how to handle it, so they shot him.”
Meanwhile, nearly a year after his death, Hall’s mother said the most difficult thing to deal with is the silence of investigators. The family still hasn’t received the medical examiner’s report.
“He murdered my child. He took my child’s life for no reason,” Daniels said. “I’m waiting for some closure, some justice. I just want the truth to come out.”
Five months later, on July 3, Homestead police Officer Anthony Green shot and killed Edward Foster III. It was at least the third time Green had killed a civilian while on duty. He was cleared of the first two shootings in 2005 and 2007. Green also shot a burglary suspect in 2008.
Family members say Foster, a father of six who moved to South Florida from New York in 2006, was on his way to the market when he collided with Green. Police said Green fired while still in his patrol car. Some witnesses claimed Foster had his hands in the air when he was killed. Police recovered a gun near Foster’s body.
When he was killed, Foster, 35, was still on probation for an armed robbery and attempted murder conviction in 2011. Goldberg, the attorney, said Foster’s wounds were on his side and back.
Foster’s foster mother and the executor of his estate, Alti Banuchi, said Foster’s children are still undergoing counseling and that family members attend Homestead council meetings each month seeking answers.
“We never get answers. No information is released. He doesn’t deserve to be on the force,” Banuchi said.
The year’s final police shooting death involved a convicted bank robber, public transportation, a bank, a barbershop and a knife.
On Dec. 15, David Winesett walked away from his Little Havana halfway house, took a bus to Miami Beach and tried to rob a bank but failed. A few shops north on Alton Road, Winesett entered the RazzleDazzle Barbershop, where he terrified workers and emerged outside shirtless and with a straight-edged razor.
By then, police had the bald, tattooed convict surrounded and high-definition camera phones that would later fire off the conflict into cyberspace were glued to the disturbance.
On the video, Miami Beach police Officer Fabio Cabrera is seen aiming his weapon at Winesett, his finger on the trigger of his AR-15 well before the weapon it was fired. Department policy says an officer “shall keep their fingers outside the trigger guard unless deadly force is justified.”
Cabrera’s lethal blast would come less than a second after Miami Beach police Sgt. Philip Elmore fired his Taser into Winesett’s chest. The Taser, used to incapacitate a suspect, was fired from behind a vehicle to Winesett’s left. Struck by its electronic prongs, Winesett appeared frozen and falling backward when Cabrera fired his weapon.
Experts have suggested that the firing of Cabrera’s weapon is something known as “sympathetic gunfire.” That’s when a weapon is discharged as a reaction to another weapon being fired. Miami Beach and Miami-Dade police have reserved comment on the incident.