As a crowd of about 40 protesters chanted and demanded answers from North Miami police Thursday evening after an officer shot Charles Kinsey, they were pushed out of the police headquarters and addressed by police spokeswoman Natalie Buissereth.
As Buissereth attempted to answer the crowd’s questions, she said she wasn’t sent out to address them because of her race.
“I’m not speaking to you because I’m a black female. I am speaking to you because I am the department’s spokesperson,” Buissereth said. “I am the [public information] officer because I also speak Creole, French, Spanish and English.”
That mix of languages reflects the mix of residents in North Miami, a city that has now been thrust into the national spotlight.
The 90-year-old city is one of the largest in Miami-Dade County and is host to a melting pot of residents, many of whom are black and Haitian American. The city is about 59 percent black, 27 percent Hispanic and 12 percent non-Hispanic white according to U.S. Census data. The City Council includes two white members and three Haitian-American councilmen, including Mayor Smith Joseph. The city manager, city clerk and city attorney are all black.
North Miami has a population of about 60,000 people, which is still considerably smaller than the city of Miami or Miami Beach. It has a mix of older residents, middle-class homeowners and residents in high-end condos and waterfront apartment complexes. The city is also home to campuses of Florida International University and Johnson & Wales University.
While the city’s police force has faced crime issues and its share of homicides and burglaries, it had not dealt with many police-involved incidents before an officer shot Kinsey, a black unarmed mental healthcare worker who was tending to his patient, Arnoldo Eliud Rios Soto, who wandered from a nearby mental health center. Monday’s shooting happened in a mostly quiet, suburban part of the city lined with’50s- and ’60s-style homes and smaller apartment complexes.
In the past decade or so, the city has faced issues of public corruption and ethics violations. In 2014 then-Mayor Lucie Tondreau was arrested and removed from office by Gov. Rick Scott for her role in a mortgage fraud scheme. She was later sentenced to 65 months in federal prison.
The city also dealt with the messy divorce between city leaders and the former board of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014. Members of the board left to form the Institute of Contemporary Art, and MOCA director Babacar M’Bow led North Miami’s museum until he was fired late last year amid allegations of sexual harassment.
The mayor, who has held the position since November 2014, said the city will let the police investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the State Attorney’s Office take its course and called the incident a sad day for North Miami.
“I assure you that we will go wherever the truth takes us and necessary decisions will be made by the proper authorities,” Joseph said at a press conference Friday afternoon.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, John Rivera, president of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association, said that the North Miami police officer thought Kinsey was in danger, attempted to shoot Soto and missed his target.
On Friday, the police identified Kinsey’s shooter as officer Jonathan Aledda, placed him on leave, and also placed newly promoted Commander Emile Hollant on unpaid leave, saying he had misled investigators.
Some North Miami residents say they hope this incident doesn’t escalate in the same way that the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge have led to protests and national outcry.
Judy Brown, president of a homeowners association in a predominately black area of the city, said that she was shocked at the officer’s actions after watching the cellphone video of the incident.
“Especially when you see that the man is on the ground with his hands up, he’s talking very loud. He is not nervous, he’s very calm, he identifies himself, he identified the young man, he tells them what the problem is,” Brown said.
She noted that North Miami police are very visible and and said they have a good relationship with the community, which is why she was surprised at the lack of information initially provided to the public.
“The longer you don’t give the information you start the snowball effect of people talking and wondering what’s going on. That’s how things get out of control,” Brown said.
Protesters seemed to echo Brown’s idea as they demanded the officer’s name Thursday night outside the police department. They also asked that he be fired and that the city forgo an extensive investigation and instead change policies.
“This could have been any of us, this could’ve been any of our friends, any of our loved ones, anyone trying to help somebody,” said Subhash Kateel, a Miami Shores resident. “We want to know how they’re going to change now, we don’t want to wait for an investigation that’s going to take two years.”
In the midst of the outcry and media maelstrom is North Miami Police Chief Gary Eugene, who was named to that post earlier this month, and didn’t have very many answers for media members at a press conference Thursday morning. He now faces a difficult, high-profile case after just a few weeks on the job.
“I realize there are many questions about what happened Monday night. You have questions, the community has questions, we as a city and police department have questions,” Eugene said at Thursday’s press conference. “I assure you, we will get all the answers.”
Eugene is the the city’s third police chief since 2014. His predecessor, Leonard Burgess, retired and took a job in Miramar, in neighboring Broward County. Before him, Marc Elias held the position but he resigned in February 2014 amid criticism of his use of about $14,000 in city funds to pay for seven trips to Haiti.
Eugene rose through the ranks in Miami, starting with the department in 1985 and moving up to become, successively, the first Haitian-American sergeant, lieutenant, captain and commander in the Miami Police Department’s history. He served on the force’s neighborhood enhancement team for years, working in Little Haiti and Miami’s Upper East Side.
His command staff includes assistant chief Neal Cuevas, who is Hispanic, and assistant chief Robert Bage, who is white.
Vice Mayor Alix Desulme said he supports the chief and also sent his sympathy to the Kinsey family. Kinsey left Jackson Memorial Hospital late Thursday night and is recovering at home.
“Our hearts go out to the family, and we’re doing the best we can to come to a resolution,” Desulme said.
While North Miami hasn’t had many police-involved shootings, the incidents are not entirely uncommon in South Florida. In 2015, 14 people were shot by police officers from six different agencies. In one of those incidents, Miami Gardens police fatally shot Lavall Hall, 25, a mentally ill man who was wielding a broomstick when police responded to a call from his mother.
The police department has opened a line for residents to call with comments and complaints at 305-902-6745.