Update: Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon publicly stated he doesn't believe the officer will be charged in a series of tweets challenging the state attorney to follow through. Read more here.
A Miami police officer was relieved of duty Thursday when a video surfaced of him delivering a running kick to the head of a suspected car thief who was lying defenseless on his stomach in handcuffs.
As the video got wide airplay in South Florida media, Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina declared that it "depicts a clear violation of policy" and immediately suspended the officer, identified as Mario Figueroa. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle also ordered an investigation that could lead to possible prosecution of the officer.
"I'm very happy the chief took swift, immediate action," said Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.
Figueroa, who has been on the force for two years, was suspended — with pay — pending the outcome of the investigation. The suspect kicked by Figueroa, David Vladim Suazo, 31, is facing a host of charges ranging from grand theft to fleeing an officer.
The encounter was captured on cellphone video by Lisa Harrell, a former Florida International University student who lives at the Culmer Apartments on Northwest Eighth Street and Seventh Avenue in the Overtown section of Miami. She said she was so outraged she posted the video on her Facebook page and sent a copy to the city of Miami.
The stay-at-home mom was inside her apartment just before 10 a.m. Thursday and went outside, she said, when her dog wouldn't stop barking.
That's when she said she saw Suazo running back and forth through courtyards in the apartment complex, until he was trapped and gave himself up, laying prone on the grass.
"He ran around and then he was face-to-face with police," Harrell said. "He put his hands on his head. The police said lay down. He did. And then the police just came and kicked him."
On Facebook, Harrell posted, "He was down already. Didn't have to kick him!!! I will not let this go unnoticed."
The 51-second video clearly shows a man lying on his stomach on the grass with his hands over his head. A dog can be heard barking in the background. As one officer cautiously approaches from the right and bends down to handcuff the suspect, Figueroa races in from the right side of the frame and kicks violently at the prone man's head.
He kicked so hard he almost fell over.
After Figueroa's kick, two other officers approached and about 20 seconds later the video ends. Harrell said she turned off her cellphone because she noticed officers looking at her. She said at no time was she told to put the camera down.
Other than Colina announcing the suspension, Miami police refrained from discussing the confrontation. Fraternal Order of Police president Ed Lugo also chose not to comment to the Miami Herald.
Fernandez Rundle said she watched the video with indignation and instructed Assistant State Attorney Johnette Hardiman of the department's public corruption unit to open an investigation.
"I was shocked and appalled by what I saw," the state attorney said.
Fernandez Rundle’s office has been criticized in the past for failing to charge officers in use-of-force cases, particularly involving cops who fatally shoot people during confrontations. State law gives officers wide leeway to use force in defense of themselves or others, and local prosecutions of officers in Florida are rare. In over two decades, Fernandez Rundle’s office has not charged an officer for a fatal on-duty shooting, and only recently charged one for a non-fatal shooting.
Late Thursday afternoon Miami police released Suazo's arrest report, which includes details not captured in the video. The report says police were chasing a car thief who endangered the public as he fought off their attempt to take him into custody.
Police said that when they first spotted Suazo, he was driving a blue 2000 Jeep Cherokee that had been stolen in Broward County. The report says when an officer turned on his siren ordering Suazo to stop, the suspect sped up toward the Culmer Apartments. There, police said, he sped up further, jumped a sidewalk, crashed into a wall and fled on foot.
Police said as Suazo ran they repeatedly gave him loud verbal commands to get on the ground. When finally confronted by Figueroa, the report says, the suspect took "a fighting stance" and swore at the officer. Then, according to the report, Figueroa deployed his Taser, but it was ineffective. The report doesn't say if the Taser hit its mark.
Finally, according to the official arrest report, another officer fired his Taser at Suazo and ordered him to the ground.
At no point does it make mention that Figueroa kicked at the suspect's head.
Suazo was charged with third-degree grand theft, fleeing and eluding a police officer, reckless driving with damage to a property or person, driving with a suspended license, leaving the scene of an accident and resisting an officer without violence.
Miami's police department is still subject to a policing agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that grew out of a spate of controversial shootings that began in the late 2000s. The department agreed to a series of new training procedures mostly related to interaction with suspected criminals.
Former Mayor Tomas Regalado and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson asked the Justice Department to investigate the city's police after the shooting deaths of several unarmed black men, leading to the ongoing oversight agreement.
Jane Castor, the former Tampa police chief hired to monitor the city's compliance with the agreement, was unavailable for comment on Thursday.