Crime

North Miami cop charged in shooting of autistic man’s unarmed therapist

A North Miami police officer will face criminal charges for shooting the unarmed caretaker of an autistic man last summer — one of a string of questionable police shootings of black men nationwide that sparked protests.

Officer Jonathan Aledda was arrested and charged Wednesday with a felony count of attempted manslaughter, and a misdemeanor charge of culpable negligence.

The arrest came nine months after Aledda shot and wounded Charles Kinsey, a behavioral therapist who was lying on his back on the ground, his hands up in the air, begging officers not to shoot — a confrontation partly captured on video from a bystander.

The arrest marks the first time prosecutors under Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle have charged an officer for an on-duty shooting. Her office concluded that Aledda was more than 150 feet away from Kinsey, while two other officers — also armed with rifles — were within 20 feet and did not feel threatened. Aledda “was not in a position to correctly assess the situation or in a position to accurately fire,” according to a press release.

READ MORE: Cop charged in Charles Kinsey shooting called ‘enthusiastic and self-motivated’

The Kinsey case, which came amid protests in many cities over controversial police shootings, was being closely watched by police and civil rights groups critical of law enforcement tactics — particularly in the black community.

The decision to file charges drew a swift rebuke from North Miami’s police union, which is representing Aledda, an officer with a history of commendations.

“In this case, we're going to be able to show how politically motivated, vindictive and incompetent that the state attorney is” Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera said. “The law is a very simple thing – intent. They're never going to be able to prove that this guy acted maliciously or recklessly in any way.”

Aledda, 30, was booked into the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center and was expected to post bail Wednesday night.

The encounter unfolded on July 18, 2016, when North Miami officers were summoned to the scene by a 911 caller who reported what appeared to be a disturbed man armed with a handgun. It was actually a silver toy truck. The man was 26-year-old Arnaldo Rios, a severely autistic man who had wandered away from a group home and sat down in the middle of the street. Kinsey was trying to coax him back to the facility when police arrived.

The standoff culminated in Aledda, a trained SWAT officer, firing three shots from his M4 carbine without a scope, hitting Kinsey in the thigh.

Kinsey survived and has since sued North Miami over the officer’s use of force. His attorney, Hilton Napoleon, declined to comment because of the ongoing federal litigation.

After the shooting, Rivera defended Aledda, saying the officer was actually firing at Rios, the autistic man, whom the officer believed was armed and a danger to Kinsey.

“This guy was trying to save a life. The fact that he missed, the last time that I checked, is not a crime,” Rivera said on Wednesday.

But prosecutors – after months of internal discussions, re-enactments and reviews of witness statements, radio transmissions and other evidence – determined that the use of force was not legal and Rios was not a threat.

Police radio transmissions were conflicting, with one commander early on saying Rios appeared to be reloading. That commander later left to fetch binoculars and did not witness the shooting.

Prosecutors learned that two other officers, Kevin Crespo and Alens Bernadeau, taking cover and only about 20 feet from Rios and Kinsey, concluded the silver object was not a weapon, according to an arrest warrant.

During the brief stand-off, Rios was rocking back and forth, playing with the silver object, twirling it back and forth. Kinsey was on the ground hollering: “It’s okay! It’s okay” and “All he has is a toy truck in his hands!”

At 5:06 p.m., Bernadeau radioed out: “The person advised that it’s a toy –it’s the toy, uh, car ... so use caution.”

Moments later, Aledda announced “I have a clear shot of the subject.”

Then, as Bernadeau inched closer to take cover behind a light pole, he radioed out again: “I have a visual. Does not appear to be a firearm. Have units [standby].”

Bernadeau and Crespo were about to walk over to put handcuffs on Rios when the shots rang out, according to the warrant. Aledda was 152 feet away when he fired three times.

Whether Aledda heard the radio transmissions remains unknown. Aledda, however, was uncertain enough about his target that before firing, he asked an officer next to him whether the man did indeed have a gun. The fellow officer wasn’t sure either.

The sound of the gunshots surprised all the other officers on the scene, who later told investigators they did not feel threatened. That included Kevin Warren, the officer taking cover next to Aledda behind a black car.

“Much like Officer Warren, no other officers on the scene observed Mr. [Rios] exhibit any behavior that compelled them to shoot,” according to the arrest warrant by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigated the case.

For prosecutors, what happened afterward confirmed the fact that the shots were unjustified, according to the warrant.

With Kinsey writhing on the ground in pain, Rios stood up and began to yell, still holding the toy truck.

Aledda did not fire again, but did radio “be advised, it’s a toy truck.” The dispatcher asked him anyone was hurt. “Negative,” Aledda replied – he was too far away to even see Kinsey, or hear his screams.

Aledda remains suspended with pay. City Manager Larry Spring said the department is still investigating whether he and other officers violated an internal administrative policies in how the incident was handled.

The arrest was lauded by Rios’ attorney, who said his client remains traumatized by the shooting. “To this day, he suffers from night terrors and wakes up and screams ‘Police! Police!’ and screams about blood,” said lawyer Matthew Dietz, of the Disability Independence Group.

The use of force by police has been an ongoing national debate in recent years in light of a slew of fatal officer shootings, particularly of unarmed black men.

Fernandez-Rundle, in office since 1993, has received criticism over the years for not having charged any police officers, in a state where laws afford cops wide latitude to use deadly force, including the ability to shoot at fleeing felons.

Her office has also received criticism for lengthy delays in closing investigations into police shootings, probes that can sometimes drag on years.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, under Janet Reno, was the last office to get a conviction of a police officer for a shooting. A jury in 1989 convicted Miami Officer William Lozano of manslaughter for the shooting death of unarmed black man on a motorcycle – but the conviction was overturned, and a second jury acquitted him.

The Aledda case will be prosecuted by Chief Assistant State Attorney Don Horn, who also tried the Lozano case. That also drew the ire of Rivera, the police union president.

“I think Don Horn is trying to vindicate himself from the Lozano case he lost,” Rivera claimed.

After Lozano, a Palm Beach deputy was charged with shooting a fleeing man in 1993, and acquitted. After that, no Florida police officer had been arrested for an on-duty shooting until Broward Deputy Peter Peraza was arrested in December 2015 for the killing of a man who was walking down the street with BB-rifle.

Again, there was no conviction – a judge later dismissed the case after ruling Peraza acted in self-defense.

Prosecutors may have an easier chance getting a conviction in the case of Palm Beach Gardens Detective Nouman Raja, who was arrested last year for manslaughter and attempted murder after shooting musician Corey Jones along the side of Interstate 95.

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