Two 911 calls bookend the police shooting two weeks ago that left a behaviorial therapist — lying flat on his back in a North Miami street with his hands in the air next to the autistic patient he was trying to help — wounded, bleeding and handcuffed.
The first call from a passing driver described two men in the street, a white Hispanic man possibly armed and possibly mentally ill, and a black man talking to him. The second call reported gunfire in the same area, the burst from a police officer’s rifle.
Less than six minutes elapsed between those critical calls. That was scant time for police officers to assess and potentially defuse a confusing encounter in broad daylight with two unarmed men.
The black man, group home therapist Charles Kinsey, who pleaded with officers not to use guns while urging the autistic man he was caring for to lie on the ground, wound up with a bullet hole in his leg. It was a shot the police union chief later said was actually aimed at Arnaldo Eliud Rios, a profoundly autistic man whose perceived weapon proved to be a silver toy truck.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is investigating the July 18 shooting, has released little information and doesn’t expect to complete its investigation for two to three months. Those findings will be passed on to the Miami-Dade State Attorney, which will determine if criminal charges should be filed against any of the officers involved.
But the timeline of the shooting — compiled by the Miami Herald through 911 recordings, witness accounts and a cellphone video captured by a witness — raises a host of questions. It shows police officers acting quickly — perhaps too quickly, some experts and critics say — and making questionable decisions in dealing with a severely autistic man.
What prompted officer Jonathan Aledda, a SWAT team veteran, to pull the trigger remains murky. Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera defended the shooting, saying Aledda was actually aiming at Rios, who officers believe had a handgun, to protect Kinsey. But if that was the case, why stop shooting after striking the wrong target?
“Unless it’s an accidental discharge with a three-shot automatic weapon, it boggles my mind,” said police policy expert and former Miami police chief Ken Harms. “You neutralize the threat. He [Rios] wasn’t neutralized when he shot the caretaker in the leg.”
Aledda’s attorney Andew Axelrad said his client fired his assault rifle with reason.
“This was not an accidental discharge,” Axelrad said. “This was a very real perceived threat to the officer — and it simply missed the mark. He had a fear the Mr. Kinsey was going to be killed.”
Asked why Aledda stopped shooting after missing Rios, Axelrad said officers are trained to stop shooting when the threat is gone, “So, obviously in Mr. Aledda’s mind, the threat was gone.”
Still, others in and out of of North Miami, scratch their heads at how what seemed like a relatively routine incident escalated, turning into the latest in a string of controversial shootings that have sparked national debate over police interactions with black men.
“The community has questions. We as a city and police department have questions,” North Miami Police Chief Gary Eugene said last month addressing community activists. “And I assure you, we will get all the answers.”
In an interview this week with the Columbia Journalism Review, Delrish Moss, a former city of Miami homicide detective who took over as police chief of strife-torn Ferguson, Missouri, after a 32-year policing career in South Florida, said he was puzzled by the video taken of the confrontation between Kinsey, Rios and North Miami police.
“Just from what I’ve seen and I don’t know all the facts behind it, I don’t see a reason to shoot,” Moss said. “I suspect it was probably an accidental discharge. I’m waiting to see how it unfolds. … It certainly did not help the argument for police with regard to we’re not just shooting people. That added fuel to a blazing fire.”
The North Miami shooting also happened while nerves on both sides of the debate remained raw over the shooting deaths two weeks earlier by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minneapolis and police ambushes in Baton Rouge and Dallas that left eight police officers dead.
The July 18 incident that propelled North Miami onto the national stage began at 4:59:23 on a Monday, when a woman called a 911 operator and said she had just driven past a man in the roadway who was holding a gun to his head and that a black man beside him seemed to be trying to “talk him out of it.”
“The Spanish guy looks like a mentally ill person,” a woman with what sounds like a Jamaican accent said. “I don’t know if it’s a gun, but he has something like the shape of a gun, so just be careful. But he’s sitting in the middle of the road.”
The woman hung up after telling the operator police had arrived. The call lasted three minutes and 39 seconds.
As police pulled up, they found Kinsey, who is black, standing over Rios, who is white Hispanic. Rios was sitting in the middle of the roadway playing with his toy truck as Kinsey tried to coax him back inside the group home where he lives, less than a block away.
In a pair of cellphone videos of the incident taken by a still-unnamed man in nearby apartment complex, police can be heard repeatedly ordering both men to lie on the ground with their hands up. Kinsey complies. Rios doesn’t.
The video of the encounter has a gap, stopping before the shooting, then beginning afterward. The initial recording, taken from ground level, shows officers lined up behind street poles and patrol cars. On it, Kinsey can clearly be heard begging Rios to obey the police command and urging police not to fire.
“I’m a behavioral therapist at a group home. There’s no need for guns,” Kinsey yelled. “Arnaldo, please be still Arnaldo. Lay down Arnaldo. Lay on your stomach.”
Sometime in the next few minutes, Aledda fired a quick burst of three rounds from his assault rifle from a distance that multiple sources estimated at 50 to 75 yards. Why the situation suddenly escalated isn’t exactly clear but Alexrad said his client responded in part to a radio call from officer that one of the men appeared to be loading a weapon. Sources confirm it came from North Miami Commander Emile Hollant, the lead officer on the scene.
The Herald has requested, but has not yet obtained, audio recordings of radio transmissions by officers on the scene and police dispatchers. CBS News reported that in a sequence captured by the company Broadcastify — which records police and fire radio around the country — one officer warns, “He’s loading his weapon.” It isn’t clear from those transmissions if the officer was referring to Kinsey or Rios.
But another transmission, according to records released Friday, notes that “the person advises that it is a toy, it’s a toy car.”
Exactly when that transmission was made, or if Aledda heard it, remains unclear. Hollant, in an interview with prosecutors, seemed to acknowledge that he heard it, prompting him to go back to his car to grab binoculars.
“We were told that the subject had a toy. So I wanted to make sure that it was a toy that he had in his hand,” Hollant said in a transcript of the interview. Hollant said he was at his car, over a block away, when the gunfire rang out.
“I did not even know that the man was shot until we approached and I saw the blood,” Hollant said. “All this time I thought it may have been [the suspect] that had shot a weapon. I never thought for a second that one of my officers might have shot.”
Five minutes and 36 seconds after the first call ended, a police operator got a second 911 call and had a brief exchange with a man reporting shots fired. They had been fired by Aledda. The operator responded, “Ya, just stay inside the house if you can.”
The second part of the video, taken from the second or third floor of the building, caught the shooting aftermath. It shows officers moving in, rolling Kinsey and Rios over and handcuffing both. In his only hospital interview, Kinsey told a local television station that he asked an officer why police fired at him.
One officer’s answer, according to Kinsey: “I don’t know.”
The cellphone video was given to the Herald by Kinsey’s attorney, Hilton Napoleon. Napoleon wouldn’t name the man who owned the camera. He said it was likely turned off prior to the shooting because the man believed the incident was over. Then after Kinsey was shot, he picked up his phone again.
But Axelrad, whose client faces a federal lawsuit filed this week by Kinsey, questioned what might have been missed in the gap in the video.
“It’s curious to me that we have the beginning of the video, we have the end and the middle is missing,” said the attorney. “It’s hard to imagine someone taking a video like that and just stopping it. Then picking it up.”
Kinsey, with a bullet wound to his right thigh, was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. Rios, still in handcuffs, was placed in the backseat of a North Miami patrol car. Though the city won’t discuss Rios’s detention, both Clinton Bower, president of the MacTown group home where Rios lived and Rios’s attorney Matthew Dietz, said they believe he was in the patrol car for as many as four hours.
Bower said he learned Kinsey had been shot almost immediately, shortly after 5 p.m. He said he raced from his home to a tense scene within 10 minutes but his pleas to see Rios or speak the police chief were denied. At one point, Bower said he was told Rios had been taken to the North Miami police station. When Bower began demanding answers, he said an officer threatened him.
“An officer put his hand on his weapon and said ‘back off,’” Bower said. “Everything could have been handled so differently.”
He said it was between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. when Rios was finally returned to MacTown. Attorney Matthew Dietz, who is representing Rios and his mother, said after returning to the mental health facility, workers tried to put Rios back on a normal schedule. But by the next day, he was breaking out, returning to the spot where his caretaker was shot and pounding the pavement yelling about police and blood.
Late on July 19, MacTown moved Rios to the psychiatric ward at Aventura Hospital, where he has been since as the family and authorities look for a place for him to live. The family also is pondering a lawsuit, Dietz said.
“I really think he has PTSD.”
The city suspended Hollant, 53, and a 16-year veteran, saying he provided misleading answers about the incident, at one point claiming he wasn’t present when Aledda fired. But the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office released a close-out memo Thursday saying it was simply miscommunication and there would be no criminal investigation of Hollant. Still, as of Friday afternoon Hollant remained suspended without pay. City Manager Larry Spring said that status could change pending an internal investigation.
Three days after the shooting made national news, the longtime leader of Miami-Dade’s police union held a press conference to report that Kinsey was shot by accident. Reading from notes at a podium, John Rivera said Aledda — who hadn’t been named at that point — had actually taken aim at Rios because police thought his toy truck was a gun and that Kinsey’s life was in danger. Rivera said his goal was to calm tensions.
“I couldn’t allow this to continue for the community’s sake,” Rivera said. “Folks, this is not what the rest of the nation is going through.”
That same night, Kinsey returned home with a cane and a limp after recovering at Jackson Memorial Hospital. A week later, Kinsey visited Rios in the hospital, reuniting the duo for the first time since the shooting.
Late last month, brass from the North Miami police department and other city leaders met with a committee of 15 local activists in an effort to improve the way North Miami police interact with the public.
On top of the agenda: A study of use-of-force policy, the acquisition of body and dashcam video for all police by the spring of 2017 and training for officers on how to interact with people who are mentally ill or suffer from autism.
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.