Crime

There was a national uptick in police shootings, but in Miami, it was a different story

Cariann Hithon, a 22-year-old Temple University student, was shot and killed by a Miami Beach police officer in October after she crashed into several vehicles, stopped, then lurched into an officer standing on the street.
Cariann Hithon, a 22-year-old Temple University student, was shot and killed by a Miami Beach police officer in October after she crashed into several vehicles, stopped, then lurched into an officer standing on the street.

A knife-wielding man who was swinging from a ceiling pipe dared an officer to shoot him. Another exchanged gunfire with a cop after refusing to give up a large flat-screen television he was carting away from a store. A third man tried to rob a CVS pharmacy — without realizing an off-duty cop was standing next to him.

In 2017, law enforcement officers from six agencies in Miami-Dade County shot 15 people, continuing a recent downward trend that law enforcement experts credit to improved police training and tactics. The public, particularly in communities traumatized by gun violence, also have become hyperaware of minimizing confrontations after a string of controversial police shootings of unarmed black men that triggered nationwide protests.

Last year’s numbers — obtained from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and police records — fell 17 percent from the 18 people shot in 2016, and dropped 29 percent from 21 shot in 2015. The decline also comes in the face of a national trendline that ticked upward.

“A lot of the controversial shootings have created more public awareness,” said former Miami police chief Manuel Orosa. “And police have a better grasp of when to shoot and when not to shoot.”

In the city of Miami, which has the second-largest police force in Miami-Dade County, police shooting numbers dropped significantly after Orosa changed many of his predecessor’s policies. The only police shooting in Miami in 2017 happened the night before Christmas, when a man crashed a car into a home, fled on foot and produced a weapon when officers caught up to him, police said.

Orosa said that a combination of new training techniques, a policy of not shooting into moving vehicles, and recommendations from the U.S. Department of Justice after Miami officers shot seven black men between the fall of 2009 and spring 2010, have helped police temper how often they fire their weapons.

The former chief said officers are now taught to avoid firing their weapon unless their lives or others are in immediate danger: “You may have a good police shoot, but was it a necessary one?”

Pastor Carl Johnson of the 93rd Street Baptist Church echoed Orosa, saying he believes a move by several departments toward community policing — more cops on foot and more interaction with residents, community activists and clergy — has calmed much of the friction between police and residents.

Johnson said he’s sat down with police leaders several times in the years since the August 2014 shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. That shooting, and a follow-up grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson, triggered protests that turned riotous.

The shooting also led to what became a wave of national protests over questionable shootings of unarmed black men, including a handful of encounters captured on cellphone videos. In South Florida, the shooting of North Miami behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey in the summer of 2016 — as he lay on the ground with his hands in the air trying to protect his severely autistic client — was one of those caught on video. It made international headlines.

Video shows the scene before and after caretaker Charles Kinsey is shot. He is seen lying in the street with a 26-year-old man with autism before being hit by a bullet from an assault rifle fired by a North Miami police officer.

The intense scrutiny has led many police departments to re-evaluate confrontational tactics.

“There’s a strong corrective action embrace from the community,” said Johnson. “We’re now working with police. They’ve sat down with clergy to understand temperament. They’re less aggressive.”

The numbers in Miami-Dade dropped despite a slight increase nationally of police-involved shooting deaths during the past two years. The Washington Post, which has a database of national police shooting deaths, said the total number this year of 976 is an increase over the 963 people who were shot and killed by police in 2016. The Post also reported that 58 people were shot and killed by police in Florida in 2017.

Chuck Wexler, president of the Police Executive Research Forum, said his agency, which researches critical policing issues, has been assisting police departments in Miami Beach, Miami and Miami-Dade.

“Policy matters. Training matters. And leadership matters,” said Wexler, who attributes much of the decrease in police shootings to agencies that — for the most part — no longer shoot into moving vehicles. “Policies make a difference.”

Miami-Dade isn’t the only area to see dramatic differences. The largest police force in the U.S., the New York Police Department, has seen a remarkable turnaround. In 2017, its 35,000 police officers were involved in only 26 shootings, according to records from PERF. The New York Daily News reported that New York City cops shot 37 people in 2016 and 147 people a decade earlier in 2006.

Police in 2017 were also targets of gunfire themselves. Four officers in Miami-Dade were shot in three incidents last year. All survived.

Golden Beach K9 officer Julio Soca was shot twice while assisting Miami Shores police as they chased a gunman in February. In May, Miami-Dade Detectives Charles Woods and Terrence White were shot while conducting an undercover drug sting in the Annie Coleman projects in Liberty City. The shooter hasn’t been captured.

And in December, Miami-Dade Officer Manuel Gonzalez, working off-duty at a Walmart, was shot and wounded before returning fire and killing a suspected armed robber.

Of the 15 people shot by police in Miami-Dade in 2017, eight were killed. All but one were men. Eight were black, four were white non-Hispanic and the other three were Hispanic.

Officers from the county’s largest police force, the Miami-Dade Police Department, shot eight men. Two were shot by Miami Beach and two were shot by Hialeah police. Officers from Miami and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement each shot a suspect. And and an investigator from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office also shot an armed robbery suspect.

Of the 15 shootings, two of the year’s most controversial were an August incident in which a 27-year-old unarmed man was shot dead after escaping an arrest in Miami, and an October incident in which a 22-year-old female Temple University student was shot and killed as her car careened into people and traffic on Miami Beach.

A video provided to the Miami Herald that purports to show the police shooting that killed Temple University student Cariann Hithon.

The year’s shootings began in January with Hialeah police chasing four carjacking suspects who had robbed a CVS drugstore in Hialeah, into Miami Lakes. When the car crashed, 18-year-old Daniel Placide got out and was shot. He survived.

In May, a Miami-Dade “hero” cop named Saul Rodriguez was working off-duty at the main library downtown when two homeless men got into a fight and one opened fire on the other. Rodriguez ended the fight when he shot Roderick Oliver Veazey in the midsection. He also survived.

Then in June, a Miami-Dade police officer shot and killed 82-year-old Theodore Brendecke after he barricaded himself in a room in his Pinecrest home and fired at police. The dead man’s wife told police that her husband had said he wanted a shootout with police.

In August, after spotting Anthony Ford driving a red Nissan with his cousin in Liberty Square, police ordered the driver to stop. As he was being handcuffed, Ford took off. Police said that as Ford came across Miami-Dade police officer Eduardo Pares, he reached toward his waistband and the officer shot him dead.

Police never said why they pulled Ford over and no weapon was ever found. State records show Ford was wanted for violating a five-year probationary term for an armed robbery conviction that earlier sent him to prison for seven years. According to court records, Ford cut off his GPS ankle monitor in June, vanished and had been on the lam ever since.

The next month in September, after plowing his truck through a gate at Miami International Airport, a knife-wielding man from Mississippi named Jason Brad Pearce hid in an electrical closet. When police closed in, he dared them to shoot him. After Pearce swung from a pipe and kicked an officer in the chest, they obliged. Pearce survived.

Then in October, a 22-year-old Temple University student named Cariann Hithon crashed the BMW she was driving in Miami Beach into several cars. When the car stopped, a crowd gathered, many taking video on their smartphones.

For some reason never explained, Hithon hit the gas pedal and as onlookers screamed, plowed directly into a Miami Beach cop standing in the middle of the street. Another officer fired three quick shots into the car, killing Hithon.

The shooting seemed to go against a policy change made by Beach police in 2014 that mirrored a Miami rule and forbade officers from firing into a moving vehicle unless they see a weapon other than the car that is placing themselves or others in immediate danger.

But police in Miami Beach explained that they had changed the rule earlier in the year to adapt to a new strain of terrorism in which assailants used cars and trucks to plow into large crowds in France, London, Spain and here at Ohio State University and on a bike and jogging path in New York City.

The last person shot and killed by a police officer in Miami-Dade in 2017 was 54-year-old career criminal David Facen. Three weeks before Christmas, Facen was approached by Miami-Dade police officer Gonzalez as Facen tried to wheel a large, flat-screen television out of a Walmart Superstore in Northwest Miami-Dade.

The officer, working an off-duty gig, told him to stop. Facen ignored the demand, police said. When the two reached the parking lot, police said Facen produced a gun and began to shoot. Gonzalez returned fire.

Struck five times, Gonzalez survived. Facen wasn’t as lucky.

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