Prosecutors on Tuesday filed an assault charge against a Miami police officer caught on video kicking at the head of a handcuffed suspect lying on the ground.
But newly released police body cam footage also clarified what happened during the encounter in Overtown last week. Officer Mario Figueroa ran toward the prone and defenseless David Suazo and swung his leg so hard he seemed to fall over — but his foot made no contact.
Not long after, body cam video recorded Suazo, 31, who faces a handful of charges including grand-theft auto, mocking the officer's effort.
“Missed on the kick. Learn how to aim, my boy,” said Suazo, speaking while he was cuffed on the floor of a local hospital, where police had transported him after he had complained of chest pains.
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Figueroa replied: "If I wanted to kick you, you know, I would have kicked you right."
"If you wanted to, you'd got your ass shot," Suazo replied.
Even though Suazo was already on the ground in handcuffs, Figueroa insisted to the man that his action was justified. "Me pretending to kick you got you to comply," the officer said at the hospital, according to the footage.
The arrest of Suazo — who police say crashed a stolen car and led cops on a foot chase through an Overtown apartment complex — was captured on cellphone by a resident, who posted it online. It was difficult to tell from the angle of that video if Figueroa's kick landed or not, but the officer's action sparked immediate backlash, calls for his ouster and criticism from both Miami's police brass and state prosecutors. Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina suspended him after viewing the video; on Tuesday, he said he moved to begin firing Figueroa.
"The Miami Police Department would like to assure the community that it will not tolerate any transgressions against the badge its officers are meant to wear with honor, and remains committed to maintaining the highest possible standards of ethics, transparency, and accountability," he said in a prepared statement.
Now, Figueroa faces an assault charge, which is a misdemeanor. He was not charged with battery because the kick did not land, and Suazo showed no signs of an injury.
Figueroa’s attorney Eugene Gibbons said Tuesday his client had just run out from inside a house during the chase of Suazo and saw an officer on the ground with him who appeared to be struggling.
“It appeared to him the officer was struggling with him. He realized he wasn’t resisting purposely, so he diverted the kick,” Gibbons said
“We’re confident that the judicial system will work in officer Figueroa’s favor.” said Gibbons. “There is no legal basis for the charge. He was doing his job and he was exercising great restraint.”
As for the city’s attempt to fire his client, “the city’s just putting itself in a very bad position.”
The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents Figueroa, defended the officer, saying he risked his life to "take a dangerous man off the streets" and is "being used as a scapegoat."
"It is unfortunate that because of social media, Officer Figueroa has been found guilty by some in the public without the proper due process afforded to anyone accused," Miami FOP President Edward Lugo said in a statement. "Because of political pressure, Officer Figueroa is being charged with a simple assault. There is no doubt that Officer Figueroa will be exonerated."
The video emerged as the Miami Police Department remains under federal supervision stemming from a series of shootings of black men several years ago — and comes against the backdrop of increased national scrutiny on police use of force.
City leaders reacted with outrage to the video of a Hispanic officer seemingly attacking a handcuffed black man.
Commissioner Keon Hardemon, whose district includes Overtown, called Figueroa's kick "disgusting and cowardly," while Mayor Francis Suarez said he wants to empower the police chief with the ability to fire officers more quickly.
As for Suazo, he remains in jail in connection with several felony charges. He had been on probation for burglary with assault when he was arrested.
In Florida, where the law gives officers wide latitude to use force to defend themselves or others, criminal charges against cops for on-duty confrontations are rare. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has been criticized for failing to charge any officers for on-duty fatal shootings in more than two decades.
Last year, her office charged a North Miami officer who shot and wounded 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 officer, Jonathan Aledda, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
“Officer Mario Figueroa can have no excuse for the alleged actions seen on the initial videotape,” Fernandez Rundle said in a statement. “This community demands respect for all individuals taken into custody. Any evidence of abuse, which is also evidence of a crime, will assist us in going forward with this case.”