The investigation into the shooting of a motorist and four bystanders by police on Memorial Day weekend two years ago took an unexpected detour Wednesday. In one eight-hour interlude:
• Miami Beach P.D. told The Miami Herald in an email that a key piece of evidence — tapes containing radio chatter between officers on the street and police dispatchers — had been destroyed as a matter of routine housekeeping. The department cited state law stipulating that such records can lawfully be disposed of after 30 days.
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It was a startling revelation. The dispatches, which would indicate what Miami Beach and Hialeah officers saw, heard and did before they fired 116 shots at an erratic motorist during Urban Beach Week 2011, killing him and wounding four tourists, are crucial to determining whether police acted properly.
• Informed that the city had said the records were destroyed, the attorney for the dead motorist expressed outrage. “Those recordings of police transmissions represent the unedited truth of what happened, and that’s all we’re asking. The family wants to know why their son was killed,’’ said Marwan Porter, representing the family of Raymond Herisse.
Porter and lawyers representing the four wounded bystanders are demanding various police records, including the dispatch tapes, in hopes of proving that police acted recklessly when they opened fire.
• The announcement by records custodian John Babcock was immediately contradicted by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. Spokesman Ed Griffith called the information “completely erroneous” and said the lead detective in the case had just verified that the tapes had been preserved.
• Asked by email to explain the discrepancy, Babcock replied, “What case are you talking about?” then referred a reporter to the city attorney’s office, which did not return a phone call.
• Reached on his cellphone, Police Chief Ray Martinez said it was his understanding that the dispatch tapes had already been turned over to the civil plaintiffs.
“I’m not sure why they didn’t get them, but I will make sure new copies are sent out right away,’’ Martinez said.
He called Babcock’s statement about their disposal a misunderstanding.
As of Wednesday evening, the crucial tapes remained elusive despite a four-week-old court order that they be turned over.
The Miami Herald had requested the tapes separately, and before Wednesday the city had offered various rationales for not turning them over.
After one such request, Assistant City Attorney Aleksandr Boksner said, to his knowledge no such tapes exist. When the request was resubmitted, Bobby Hernandez, a public information sergeant, explained that the chatter would not be released because the law exempts from public scrutiny any “video or audio recordings that depict or record the killing of a person.”
In response to that, the newspaper narrowed its request to seek chatter up to but not including the moment Herisse was hit by 16 bullets.
That request prompted the reply from Babcock.
“The tape was destroyed IAW [in accordance with] the disposition instructions in the Florida General Schedule 1 #335,’’ Babcock said in the email to The Herald Wednesday morning.
Whether or not the newspaper is entitled to the tapes, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Victoria Sigler has already ruled that they must be turned over to the plaintiffs as part of their public records lawsuit.
“The families here are entitled to autopsy reports, autopsy results and any audio and/or visual recordings that took place shortly before, during or after the shooting, including 911 calls and dispatches ...’’ Sigler said.
The misinformation about the police transmissions is the latest in a series of issues that have dogged the investigation — and caused plaintiffs to question whether Miami Beach should be conducting the probe or whether an independent investigation is merited.
During last month’s civil court hearing, a police sergeant supervising the criminal inquiry testified that he was among the officers responding to the scene that morning, a potential conflict of interest.
“The Miami Beach Police Department’s investigation into the Memorial Day Urban Beach Weekend shooting reeks of corruption at the highest level,’’ said Jasmine Rand, who represents Cedrick Perkins, a bystander who was shot in the chest.
Martinez said he is committed to ensuring that the investigation is complete, fair and impartial.
Police have said Herisse was driving his blue Hyundai the wrong direction on Collins Avenue near 16th Street. when he struck a Hialeah police officer on a bicycle. That officer and others from neighboring cities were assisting Miami Beach with crowd control during the 2011 street festival.
The policeman ordered Herisse to pull over, at which point Herisse continued down the street, striking parked vehicles, according to Miami Beach P.D.
After Herisse rolled to a stop near 14th Street, police officers trotted up alongside the Hyundai and 12 of them opened fire, shooting 116 times, a scene captured on video by multiple witnesses and posted on YouTube. Three days later, police announced a search of the car had located a gun under a seat, concealed in a towel. A gunshot residue test indicated it had not been fired.