A Miami Beach police officer was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday in connection with the fatal Taser shooting of an 18-year-old graffiti artist who was caught spray-painting his tag on a boarded-up storefront early Wednesday morning.
Jorge Mercado, a 13-year veteran of the force, fired the stun-gun at Israel Hernandez-Llach, striking him in the chest. The teenager, whose death has been condemned by Miami’s art community, was an award-winning artist whose work had been exhibited locally and recognized by Florida U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
On Tuesday, witnesses reported that Miami Beach police officers, who had been chasing him for about 10 minutes, celebrated trapping and Tasering him by slapping each other with high-fives as the teenager lay dying in the street.
Miami Beach Police Chief Raymond Martinez did not comment on the witness reports, saying the case remains under investigation.
Hernandez-Llach’s last mural, on a shuttered McDonald’s at 71st Street and Collins Avenue, now mirrors his unfinished life, one his art teachers say was filled with promise.
“In my 20 years as an art teacher, Israel was one of the most unique and talented students I have ever encountered,’’ said Frank O’Hare, his art teacher at Miami Beach High, where Israel was a senior.
On Thursday evening, a crowd of about 100 people gathered at 71st and Collins to remember Hernandez-Llach. They spray-painted “R.I.P. Israel’’ on the boarded-up building where he had painted his last tag — “Reefa’’ — and chanted “No Justice, no peace.’’
Said Wanda Brini, 18: “Art is not a crime.’’
The Colombian-born young man’s alleged crime — vandalizing private property — was not serious enough, his friends and family said, for him to be shot with a Taser, the brand name for a hand-held weapon that delivers a jolt of electricity to disrupt muscle control and subdue a fleeing and potentially dangerous suspect.
At five-foot-six and 150 pounds, Hernandez-Llach hardly posed a threat to anyone, friends said.
According to the police report, Hernandez-Llach fled after he was confronted by police about 5 a.m., leading officers on a zig-zag foot chase between buildings and up and down alleys. The pursuit ended with Hernandez-Llach cornered a block away, at 71st and Harding and, with nowhere to go, he began running toward the officers, Martinez said Wednesday.
To avoid physically restraining Hernandez-Llach, an officer — identified by sources as the five-foot-six, 170-pound Mercado — employed the Taser. Police said after being stunned, the teenager began showing signs of medical distress and paramedics were summoned. He was transported to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about 6:15 a.m.
Thiago Souza, who was with Hernandez-Llach — acting as his lookout — said the chase began pretty much as police said it did. Souza lost sight of his friend during the pursuit and, when he caught up with him about 10 minutes later, he was face-down on the pavement outside the National City Bank building on Collins.
“I didn’t even know they fired a Taser. I thought they just had him down and he was arrested and was just tired,’’ Souza said.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,’’ said Souza, 19. “I asked the cops ‘what happened to my friend?’ then they detained me and my other friend and that’s when I heard one of the cops make nasty remarks.
“He said ‘you should have seen how funny it was when his butt clenched when he got Tased’ he said, and they were all clapping and doing high-fives all over his body. It was almost like they were proud of what they did.’’
Then he noticed his friend wasn’t moving and asked police what was happening. Medics tried to revive him using a defibrillator.
“The cop told me he was dead. It was just a powerful image seeing my friend there, with the medics pumping him.’’
Souza and his friend Felix Fernandez were taken to the police station, where officers seized their cellphones and questioned them. Eventually, their phones were returned. Souza said he was too afraid of police to take photographs or video of the incident.
An autopsy, conducted Wednesday, was inconclusive, Martinez said. Toxicology tests are pending. Sources told the Miami Herald that neither the family nor its representatives were permitted at the autopsy.
Police have not released statements or reports of any of the officers who witnessed the shooting. Officer Thomas Lincoln, who wrote the official incident report but did not see Hernandez-Llach shot by the Taser, said when he arrived on the scene, the teenager was “sitting on the ground and against a wall’’ and a police sergeant was radioing for fire-rescue. Lincoln did not say why fire-rescue was being summoned.
Souza said he and Hernandez-Llach smoked about half a joint a half-hour before the incident, but that they did not take any other drugs or alcohol that morning.
The incident is under investigation by the department and by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, questioned whether the use of a Taser was justified against the teenager, who was not committing a violent act. Though considered non-lethal weapons, Tasers sometimes lead to deaths, although pre-existing health issues or ingestion of powerful drugs are often blamed.
Simon said the incident further erodes the public’s trust in the Miami Beach Police Department, which has a history of problem officers.
According to his internal affairs record, Mercado has had six complaints filed against him since he was hired in 2000. The complaints range from excessive force and battery to violating the department’s code for courtesy and respect. However, all the complaints were either unsubstantiated or exonerated except for one: an allegation involving drug testing procedures in January 2011. He was suspended 160 hours for that violation, according to his record.
The only other officer at the scene with a substantive record of complaints was Lincoln, who has had 12 incidents on his record since he was hired in 1994. He received a letter of reprimand in 2004 and 10 hours suspension in 2005 for conduct unbecoming an officer. All other complaints and incidents were closed, unsubstantiated, withdrawn or unfounded.
But the force overall has faced scrutiny for excessive force, lack of oversight and supervision and rogue behavior. In one of the most high-profile episodes, a motorist was killed and four bystanders seriously wounded two years ago in a wild police shooting on Memorial Day weekend. At least 12 police officers — eight from Miami Beach and four from Hialeah — opened fire on a crowded street, firing more than 100 rounds at the motorist, who had been driving erratically. His family and the surviving victims are suing the city, contending the officers’ use of lethal force was unjustified. The case remains under investigation.
That same year, on July 4th weekend, a Miami Beach police officer who had been drinking on duty took a bride-to-be on a joyride on his city-owned ATV and ran over two people on the beach.
“This is the latest in a long, tragic series of incidents in which the Miami Beach Police Department appears to have used excessive, disproportionate or lethal force,’’ Simon said about Thursday’s incident. “Unfortunately, the Miami Beach police also have a troubling track record of a lack of transparency after such incidents.’’
Miami Herald staff writers David Noriega, Mary Ellen Klas and Christina Veiga and Lance Dixon contributed to this story.