Police and family of man shot dead by cop urge witnesses to come forward

Sybil Harris (center), the mother of Jamar Rollins, is consoled at a community meeting at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church on Tuesday.
Sybil Harris (center), the mother of Jamar Rollins, is consoled at a community meeting at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church on Tuesday.

For most of the past week, family members have called the death of Jamar Rollins an “assassination,” contending that witnesses saw the 21-year-old outside his car with his hands in the air before undercover Miami-Dade police officer Andrew Garcia opened fire.

Police had provided few details about the fatal face-off on the streets of Perrine, beyond saying they found a weapon believed to belong to Rollins. But Wednesday, they broke the silence. And law enforcement’s version of the events of last Friday contrasted starkly with the confrontation some residents had described took place that night.

Miami-Dade Police Spokesman Carlos Rosario talks to the media while officers investigate a shooting scene at the 10100 block of West Indigo Street in West Perrine on Fri., Dec. 30, 2016. Monique Douglas, cousin of Jamal Rollins, also speaks to the

Miami-Dade police union President John Rivera said that after Garcia and his partner, Jesus Coto, ordered Rollins to stop his vehicle, his passenger, Devin Smith, bailed out and fled. As Coto gave chase, Rivera said, Garcia approached Rollins from the passenger-side door.

The officer reported that Rollins raised a firearm, Rivera said, leaving Garcia no choice but fire his own weapon. Rollins managed to open the driver’s side door and fall out of the car before dying, Rivera said. Police say they found a gun near Rollins. Smith remains at large.

“It’s a solid shoot, man,” Rivera said. “How many times have we told people, ‘Don’t point weapons at cops.’”

Police said Garcia and Coto were part of a special undercover tactical squad that had been alerted to a retaliation shooting in the Perrine area. They told investigators they ordered Rollins to pull over the black Nissan Altima he was driving on Indigo Street near Southwest 101st Avenue. It was just past 6:30 p.m. Friday. The officers said Rollins was driving erratically.

The police union’s defense of the officer’s actions came one day after a contentious public forum called by Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss in an effort to ease tensions.

Prior to and again during the meeting, several of Rollins’ family members claimed that he was killed despite never threatening police — a stance bolstered by descriptions from people nearby the night of the shooting.

At least a half dozen people told a Miami Herald reporter and other media outlets that Rollins got out of his car and seemed to raise his hands before Garcia fired. They said they were about 200 feet from the vehicle and facing it straight on.

But Wednesday, police said not a single potential witness has stepped up — despite Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators spending days canvassing the neighborhood in search of witnesses.

“If anyone witnessed it, come forward to the FDLE,” Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez urged. “No one has come forward as of yet.”

Said Rivera: “We’ve seen this in every case dating back to Ferguson. When called in [potential witnesses] never show up, or change their story. No one has come forward, yet, to police.”

Rollins’ aunt Trithena Rollins said late Wednesday that the family was working on getting witnesses to cooperate with state investigators. She told the Miami Herald that though no one in the family saw the confrontation, they know three people who did and they’re encouraging them to speak up.

“When you come into a neighborhood and kill black people like that, you scare them,” Trithena Rollins said. “Some people came forward. Just not to police. Somebody’s got to tell the story.”

State investigators have spent most of the week canvassing the neighborhood in search of surveillance cameras, witnesses or anyone with any information related to the shooting. Police said there was no dashcam on the officer’s vehicle and Garcia and Coto were not wearing body cameras.

The FDLE, as it does with all county police-involved shootings, will investigate and pass its findings to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. The officers involved will be taken off the street for a few days and offered counseling.

State criminal history records also show that Rollins, a former Palmetto High School student with a young child, has a lengthy rap sheet that began in his early teens. The charges in most of his 10 arrests between 2009 and 2016 were dropped. Rollins was arrested six times as a juvenile, mostly for grand theft auto, with no convictions.

As an adult, the records show, Rollins was arrested four more times. Twice he was convicted of grand theft auto, and a burglary and assault case was dropped. He was also arrested in Tampa three weeks before Christmas on charges of battery on a police officer. That case is pending.

Miami-Dade police said Wednesday that Hillsborough County also had an open warrant for Rollins’ arrest at the time of his death. Police there believe he stole a vehicle Dec. 12.

By early this week, the noise surrounding the shooting reached a high enough pitch that Commissioner Moss called for a gathering at the Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Cutler Bay.

With dozens filling its pews and demanding answers, Rollins’ aunt Karen Harris repeated her claim: “This was not gun violence. This was an assassination.” Trithena Rollins also said at the forum that while it was good to have open dialogue, “we still don’t have any answers.”

Trithena Rollins said her nephew loved life, especially riding dirt bikes. But a “gun-toter, he never was.”

Perez, the county’s police director, urged the community to help and promised “if it is anything other than what it appears to be, we will take the right action on your behalf.”

Rollins’ death comes at a sensitive time for many communities and the departments that police them. Police shootings have sparked civil unrest in several cities around the country in recent years, especially with the proliferation of surveillance and cellphone cameras that don’t necessarily offer a complete picture of events, but give the public a good idea of what took place.

Yet despite its share of shootings, South Florida has been mostly spared the marches and rioting that have rocked cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, New York and even Oakland.

Controversial shootings in our region include the 2012 shooting death of North Dade teenager Trayvon Martin near Orlando by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who was acquitted at trial, and the June 2015 shooting death of Palm Beach Gardens musician Corey Jones by police officer Nouman Raja. Raja has been charged with attempted murder and manslaughter and is awaiting trial.

There was also the July shooting of behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey by North Miami police officer Jonathan Aledda. Kinsey was shot in the leg as he pleaded with officers not to shoot his mentally handicapped client who was sitting on the street playing with a toy truck next to him. That case is still being investigated.

Miami Herald Staff Carli Teproff contributed to this report.