Questionable Florida police shootings triple in past 15 years

Protesters wait to be transported after getting arrested after protesting the acquittal of Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo on May 23, 2015, in Cleveland. The acquittal came at a time of nationwide tension among police and black citizens punctuated by protests over the deaths of black suspects at the hands of white officers — and following a determination by the U.S. Department of Justice that Cleveland police had a history of using excessive force and violating civil rights.
Protesters wait to be transported after getting arrested after protesting the acquittal of Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo on May 23, 2015, in Cleveland. The acquittal came at a time of nationwide tension among police and black citizens punctuated by protests over the deaths of black suspects at the hands of white officers — and following a determination by the U.S. Department of Justice that Cleveland police had a history of using excessive force and violating civil rights. The Associated Press

The witnesses who saw a Broward County deputy sheriff kill a man who had strolled through his apartment complex with an unloaded air rifle propped on his shoulders agreed: Just before he was gunned down, Jermaine McBean had ignored the officers who stood behind him shouting for him to drop his weapon.

Nothing, the officer swore under oath, prevented McBean from hearing the screaming officers.

Newly obtained photographic evidence in the July 2013 shooting of McBean, a 33-year-old computer-networking engineer, shows contrary to repeated assertions by the Broward Sheriff's Office, he was wearing earbuds when shot, suggesting he was listening to music and did not hear the officers. The earphones somehow wound up in the dead man's pocket, records show.

"I want justice for something that went totally wrong." McBean's mother, Jennifer Young, said in an interview. She said she believed officers had profiled her son because he was black.

A federal wrongful death lawsuit filed May 11 accused the Broward Sheriff's Office of tampering with evidence and obstructing justice. The suit alleges the deputy who shot McBean perjured himself and the department covered it up by giving him a bravery award shortly after the killing, while the shooting was still under investigation.

From Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore to Cleveland, the nation is awash in disputed, high-profile cases of police violence.

A look at disputed cases in Florida is a reminder of how frequently they arise far from the limelight and how many questions surround the way they are investigated. The issue is particularly acute in Florida, where state Department of Law Enforcement statistics show the number of fatal police shootings has tripled in the past 15 years, even as crime has plummeted.

No charges since 1980

In South Florida's Broward County, no officer has been charged in a fatal on-duty police shooting since 1980, a period that covers 168 shooting deaths.

"The court never goes against the police," said Rajendra Ramsahai, whose brother-in-law, Deosaran Maharaj, was killed by a Broward County deputy last year. "They are always ruling in the officer's favor."

In civil wrongful death cases throughout South Florida, lawyers discovered files missing, dashboard camera videos erased and police department accounts that did not match the evidence. Cases like McBean's underscore how law enforcement agencies handling their own shooting investigations can be exposed to criticism years after the crime-scene tape has been taken down and the television cameras are gone.

Nearly two years after his death, and months after The New York Times began inquiring about the case, the state attorney for Broward County has subpoenaed a key witness to testify before a grand jury and assigned the case to a public corruption prosecutor.

Some cases are getting more attention. The death of a black man shot multiple times by Coconut Creek police officers firing Taser stun guns was ruled a homicide this month by the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office. The police chief, Michael Mann, resigned in March after it was revealed three of the four officers involved were not certified in Taser use. The family of the victim has asked the U.S. attorney general for an independent investigation.

In 2013, law enforcement agencies around the state asked the Department of Law Enforcement for help in 50 use-of-force and shooting investigations. A year later, requests had more than doubled to 103. Department officials asked the Legislature for $1.6 million to hire 14 additional special agents to handle the load.

"In general, across the country, I don't think the communities trust their police enough anymore," said Charles Drago, a Broward sheriff reserve officer who was deputy chief of staff for law enforcement for former Gov. Charlie Crist. "They demand more transparency."

Reforms, federal oversight

In 2011, a string of fatal shootings in Miami led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the department. The Justice Department found an unconstitutional "pattern or practice" of excessive use of force, which led to reforms and federal oversight.

The federal agency confirmed it opened an inquiry last month into the 2013 death of Charles Eimers, a Michigan man who died after he was stopped for an illegal lane change in Key West. Police dashboard camera videos that could have shed light on his death were erased, even while one Taser device recording captured an officer suggesting police should get their stories straight and another by a tourist showed a vastly different event than the one the police had initially described.

The Broward County public defender, Howard Finkelstein, said he had asked the Justice Department to investigate policing in his county but had received no response. "When you look at the fact that every single person ever shot in Broward County by a cop deserved it, that's stunning," Finkelstein said.

Michael Satz, state attorney for Broward County since 1976, declined to discuss open cases but defended his office's record.

"Just in the last five years, we have charged 92 law enforcement officers with criminal offenses," Satz said in a statement. "We take all police misconduct very seriously."

He said the perception of a lack of fairness was "unfortunate," and stressed a grand jury reviewed the circumstances of every police shooting in his county and reports were later made public.

McBean was one of four people killed by the Broward Sheriff's Office in six weeks during the summer of 2013. Of the department's 17 fatal police shootings in the past five years, his is one of eight for which a grand jury presentation and internal affairs ruling are still pending, a delay lawyers and families of those killed say is designed to circumvent the truth.

Prosecutors finally contacted key witnesses last week, a few days after the family filed a lawsuit, said family lawyer David Schoen. Among the witnesses whom prosecutors interviewed last week was Michael McCarthy, who called 911 that July afternoon to report a black man walking down a busy North Dixie Highway with what appeared to be a rifle.

"In my view, they shot this guy for no reason," McCarthy said, holding back tears. "I think about him all the time. To this moment, I think I brought this guy to his death."

McBean, who had a history of mental illness, had the day off from his job at an advertising agency because he had just been released from a hospital. He had been admitted for a few days because he briefly stopped taking his medication, his brother, Alfred McBean, said.

In a move that baffled his family, he walked to a pawnshop where he paid $106 for a green camouflage-colored Winchester 1000 air rifle, a device that uses compressed air to fire pellets but can be easily mistaken for a hunting rifle. Three people called 911 to report him, saying he was "screaming to himself" but perhaps holding a toy.

'It was just a BB gun'

A deputy, a sergeant and a lieutenant went up behind McBean after he turned into the complex where he lived, and they shouted for him to drop the weapon. After ignoring them, McBean at one point stopped and started to turn to his right, when the deputy, behind him on his left, began to fire, records and interviews show. McBean fell on his back, howled in pain and said: "It was just a BB gun."

In a sworn statement, the lieutenant said McBean had pointed the weapon "in a menacing manner," something McCarthy and another witness interviewed disputed.

Sheriff's office homicide detectives investigating the shooting interviewed several people at the nearby pool, but did not ask them whether McBean pointed the gun at the officers, transcripts show.

The deputy who shot him, Peter Peraza, said he had feared for his life, convinced McBean was about to start firing. Peraza was asked at least five times whether there was any reason McBean would not have heard the officers' commands, such as whether there was anything in his ears. Each time, Peraza said no. Investigators learned last week a neighbor had taken a picture clearly showing white earphone cables coming out of McBean's ears and two officers close to the body.

Jeff Marano, president of the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, said he was confident Peraza, who is Hispanic, would be cleared. He said despondent people sometimes point unloaded BB guns at police officers in an effort to die by "suicide by cop" and added a police officer is killed in America every 50 hours.

"I am confident that the deputy took appropriate action based on what he knew at the time and the threat he perceived at the time," Marano said.

Investigation defended

Sheriff Scott Israel declined to comment on the pending case, but insisted the sheriff's office conducted thorough investigations of its shootings. Israel recently lost a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former homicide detective who said he was demoted to patrolman after reporting excessive force was used on a homicide suspect. A judge threw out the verdict because of a problem with one of the jurors.

"There is no thin blue line here," Israel said. "We turn out honest and forthright investigations."

He said the nationwide spike in shootings of unarmed men concerned him, and he had sent a message to his deputies that anyone who shot an unarmed suspect would have to answer to him. The sheriff acknowledged the investigations were slow to conclude.

"Getting it right is more important than getting it fast," he said.