Video shows cop kicking defenseless suspect in the head
After a Miami police officer took a kick at an accused car thief's head while he was handcuffed on the ground, Commissioner Keon Hardemon emerged as the strongest voice in the chorus of outcry when he challenged the state to follow through on charging the officer with a crime in a series of taunting tweets Friday morning.
Hardemon, a former public defender and the son of a cop, fired off a host of tweets referencing Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, saying it was unlikely her office would file charges against Miami police officer Mario Figueroa.
The Hispanic officer was suspended with pay a few hours after he kicked at the head of David Suazo, a black man, as he lay face down with his hands clasped behind his back while another officer handcuffed him. The confrontation Thursday morning was caught on cellphone video and posted online.
The video incited new controversy for a department that has a history of poor relations with communities of color, a track record that led to a federal civil rights investigation and settlement. The police department is still under federal monitoring because of that history.
Hardemon, who represents the district where Suazo was arrested, expressed no faith that Figueroa would be charged.
"I predict the [State Attorney's Office] will close its investigation citing that no crime was committed because officer missed when he kicked at arrestee," Hardemon said in one of the tweets. In a separate tweet Friday morning, Hardemon called Figueroa's act "disgusting and cowardly," and also criticized two other officers in the video who do not react to Figueroa's actions and did not report the kick in the arrest form.
"I'm more disappointed in the non-assaulting cops who let their brother commit a crime without any noticeable objection," Hardemon wrote. "All culpable."
The State Attorney's Office responded only by reiterating that it is actively investigating the matter.
"We've initiated an investigation, and we're actively pursuing it," said spokesman Ed Griffith.
Mayor Francis Suarez told the Miami Herald he was "shocked and appalled" by what he saw in the video. He questioned whether officers who are filmed committing such acts should still collect a paycheck while on suspension.
"I think we need to look at the issue of suspension with pay," he said. "Especially because now we often have video evidence of these kinds of incidents."
He doubled down Friday afternoon, releasing a statement saying he wants to empower the police chief with the ability to immediately fire an officer in situations "where we have indisputable evidence" of misconduct "such as the video in this case." Under the city's current power structure, only City Manager Emilio Gonzalez has the power to authorize the police chief to fire an officer, who would likely challenge the termination under current union rules negotiated in the police labor agreement.
The incident came to light after Lisa Harrell, who lives in the Culmer Apartments in Overtown where the arrest took place, posted the video footage on her Facebook page on Thursday and sent a copy to the city of Miami. The 51-second video shows Suazo flat on his belly, his hands clasped behind his back as Figueroa runs into the frame kicking with such force that he nearly tumbled over.
Police say the encounter started when they spotted Suazo, 31, driving a stolen Jeep Cherokee, and he failed to obey a command to pull over. His arrest affidavit says Suazo sped up and drove into the Culmer apartment complex, hopped a sidewalk and crashed into a wall. Police gave chase and, after a failed Taser attempt, eventually subdued him. Harrell's video captures the moment an officer is cuffing Suazo while he's lying face down on the ground. He was charged with numerous offenses, including grand theft and fleeing an officer.
The video sparked immediate outrage and prompted Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina to suspend Figueroa and ask Fernandez Rundle to launch an investigation into a possible crime committed by the officer.
Though Suazo's head snaps to the left as Figueroa kicks, it's not entirely clear on the video whether the officer's foot connected with the suspect's head. That didn't matter to Colina, who immediately suspended Figueroa, who's been on the force for two years. But it could make a difference in what charges, if any, are pressed against the officer.
A law enforcement source familiar with the incident said close inspection of the footage seems to show Figueroa's kick missing Suazo's head.
Criminal defense attorney Brian Tannebaum, who is not representing anyone in this case, said that if prosecutors determine Figueroa missed, they could charge him with assault. If the officer connected, the charge would likely be battery. If Suazo shows he was injured, the charge could be upped to aggravated battery, Tannebaum said.
As for Figueroa's defense, "If I'm his lawyer, I'm arguing no harm, no foul," Tannebaum said. Still, Tannebaum said, the video is fairly clear: "The guy's down on the ground. Why is he trying to kick him in the first place?"
Figueroa's attorney Eugene Gibbons said on Friday that he didn't want to speak directly to Figueroa's interaction with Suazo because the incident is still under investigation.
"We've got to wait for the investigation to flush out all the facts. Everybody should just take a pause and make sure they get all the facts before reaching conclusions," Gibbons said.
On Thursday night, hours after the video and news coverage circulated online, Suazo's family showed up at a meeting of a community board created a few years ago as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice after a series of questionable shootings by Miami police officers.
Suazo's sisters told the board that they didn't even know where Suazo was taken after his arrest, Miami Herald news partner WLRN reported. Suazo's sister, Maritza Valerio, expressed her frustration to the board.
"If he committed a crime, let him face whatever penalties for that, but he was already on the ground in handcuffs,” she said.
At the meeting, Miami Police Major Cherise Gaus apologized to Valerio and her sister, Orelia Suazo.
“Just on behalf of the police department, we are truly sorry about what took place today," he said. "I assure you after this meeting we will find out the whereabouts of your relative and give you an update at that time.”
Orelia Suazo told WLRN she accepted the apology, but she was still hurt because cops at the scene of the arrest denied they had hurt her brother.
“My hurt is that the sergeant lied to our faces. He was like, ‘Oh we didn't beat up your brother.' "
Use of force
Hardemon, in his string of tweets, focused on whether the officer's kick connected.
"The courts will opine that there was no excessive use of force because the officer missed and hence no force exerted on arrestee," wrote the commissioner.
Video evidence from the body camera Figueroa was wearing may not even exist. Gibbons, the officer's lawyer, said he believes his client's body camera fell to the ground during the chase and apprehension of Suazo. That was confirmed by a police source who said Figueroa's body camera does not show him running toward and kicking at the suspect. The department had not determined whether it fell off the officer as he chased Suazo.
The incident could be another setback to a department with a checkered past when it comes to civil rights issues. As recently as 2011, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into officers using excessive force and took a look at 33 police-involved shootings over the years. At one point, Miami officers fatally shot seven black men in eight months.
Years after that spate of shootings roiled racial tensions, the city reached a settlement with the Justice Department in 2016 that required Miami's police department to operate under the supervision of a federally appointed monitor for four years.
Monitor Jane Castor, the former chief of police in Tampa who is now running for mayor there, did not respond to requests for comment.
The community board where Suazo's sisters spoke Thursday night was created as part of the federal agreement to ensure that the city is complying with the deal. The agreement also requires police officers to receive de-escalation training designed to help cops control unruly suspects without using force. An academic presentation on de-escalation was coincidentally on Thursday night's agenda.
Justin Pinn, chairman of the advisory board, said he appreciated Colina's swift suspension of Figueroa. He believes the department has made strides since the settlement, but more needs to be done to ensure that people, particularly people of color, are treated with dignity and respect even when they're being arrested.
There are still trust issues between the black community and police, he said, that won't be fully resolved if incidents like this occur and there aren't consequences for police wrongdoing.
"We have to focus on how we can change the culture of policing to make sure we're not building up this warrior mentality," he said.