North Miami’s police chief told investigators soon after the shooting of Charles Kinsey last summer that he thought he had been misled about the incident by fighting factions of his staff and believed the crime scene was tainted by officers who trampled over potential evidence.
A recently released interview with Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators, first reported by WTVJ Channel 6 and Miami New Times, suggests that Police Chief Gary Eugene and City Manager Larry Spring were at odds over suspending the North Miami police commander in charge of the shooting scene.
The city initially suspended Cmdr. Emile Hollant without pay after Eugene and Spring said at the time he was trying to mislead them during the investigation of the shooting.
Kinsey, a black behavioral specialist, was lying on his back with both hands in the air in the middle of the roadway when he was shot in the leg by SWAT member Jonathan Aledda last July 18. Kinsey was trying to protect a severely autistic client named Arnaldo Eliud Rios.
The picture of Kinsey with his hands in the air and the 26-year-old Rios seated upright next to him playing with a toy truck grabbed worldwide attention at a time of heightened tensions between police and black communities. Police said they believed the truck was a weapon.
In the hour-long interview conducted by FDLE investigators less than two weeks after the shooting, the chief recalled how he was alerted to the shooting by his media liaison while being interviewed on a Haitian-American radio show. He raced to the scene.
The first person he saw was Hollant, who would become the initial scapegoat for the embarrassing incident — but who would soon be cleared of any wrongdoing by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. The chief told investigators that Hollant said he went back to his patrol car to grab a pair of binoculars and didn’t witness the shooting.
His statement didn’t sit well with Spring, according to Eugene, who wanted Hollant immediately suspended without pay. Spring couldn’t understand how Hollant could transmit over the radio that it appeared Rios, the autistic man, was loading a weapon but not witness the incident.
Eugene said in the FDLE interview that Spring wasn’t buying the explanation about Hollant walking back to his car even after the chief said Hollant had plenty of time to return to the scene in the four minutes between his transmission and his alleged walk back to his patrol vehicle to grab binoculars.
“He never said in my presence that he was not on the scene; he said he was not a witness,” Eugene said.
At one point in the interview, Eugene told investigators that the factions within his department were so at war with each other that Assistant Police Chief Larry Juriga even offered to visit the state attorney’s office to discuss Hollant’s alleged misdeeds.
By August, after a state attorney’s office memo revealed that Hollant didn’t mislead the command staff or investigators, his pay was reinstated. Ultimately, the state attorney found that Hollant didn’t see the shooting take place as he had returned to his squad car to get his binoculars.
Eugene also told investigators the situation with Hollant caused friction between him and the city manager. At one point, Eugene said even after he explained how Hollant had plenty of time to walk to his vehicle and return to the scene, Spring slammed his hand down on his desk.
“The city manager was fuming,” Eugene told FDLE investigators. “Why is Emile still on the force, Chief Eugene?” Eugene said Spring asked him. “You don’t understand what I’m saying?”
Spring did not respond to interview requests.
Vice Mayor Scott Galvin listened to the interview and said he hopes that State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle concludes the investigation soon.
“It’s been months that all of this has been in her hands and the city was totally caught off guard with what her office released,” Galvin said.
The interview also revealed how Eugene thought his staff was untrained and not prepared to handle homicide investigations. He said when he got to the shooting scene, officers were trampling over everything, tainting possible evidence. The city has since changed its training procedures for officers.
His testimony also shed light on why Eugene didn’t have very many answers for the media at a city news conference just days after the shooting. He said that none of the police commanders or his assistant chief filled him in on what happened on the day of the shooting even when he arrived at the scene.
“The chief of police showed up on the scene — somebody should have told me something. I was pissed, to be honest with you,” Eugene told investigators.
Hollant’s attorney, Michael Joseph, already filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and a complaint with the Miami-Dade ethics commission earlier this year. He said this recording should force the city to reinstate Hollant.
“It just kind of opened up the can of worms that’s actually going on in the city of North Miami,” Joseph said. “This audio pretty much vindicates and exonerates Cmdr. Hollant.”
The city has maintained that it would make a final decision on whether to remove Hollant’s suspension only after receiving the FDLE report and conducting an additional review.