Miami Beach cops to overhaul vehicle shooting rules

In this 2011 file photo, Miami Beach police investigate a police-involved shooting Memorial Day weekend.
In this 2011 file photo, Miami Beach police investigate a police-involved shooting Memorial Day weekend. MIAMI HERALD FILE

Miami Beach police officers will no longer treat a moving car as a deadly weapon — meaning officers won’t be allowed to shoot at one unless someone inside displays a weapon or opens fire first.

The deadly force policy change — expected to be unveiled by Police Chief Dan Oates next week — comes more than three years after the high-profile Memorial Day weekend shooting of motorist Raymond Herisse. He died in a bullet-riddled blue Hyundai targeted by 116 police rounds, which also wounded four innocent bystanders.

Miami Beach commissioners contacted by the Herald said they had not yet been briefed on the new shooting rules. But Commissioner Michael Grieco called a change a “no-brainer.” The Herisse case, still under investigation by Miami-Dade prosecutors, proved a national embarrassment for the force and the city.

“With, or without what happened on Memorial Day weekend, it sounds like a sound policy,” said Grieco. “It sounds like something so basic that one wouldn’t really need to have a policy on that. It just seems like a pretty logical thing.”

Miami Police Detective Vivian Thayer, the department spokeswoman, confirmed an expected move — but said Oates would unveil complete details, likely next week .

“He’s going to talk about it when he releases it,” said Thayer.

The new policy could be similar to one in place in Miami for decades. Miami police are prohibited from discharging firearms at or from a moving vehicle unless deadly force is being used against a cop or another person by means other than the vehicle.

Miami police Maj. Delrish Moss said the city’s policy promotes public and police safety.

“Logistically, getting out of the way is probably more effective than firing at the car,” said Moss. “Then you can have a car out of control because you have a dead guy at the wheel. It minimizes the risk of cops being in harm’s way.”

Moss said the last moving vehicle shooting death involving a city officer that he could recall was in 1999, when Officer William Lozano opened fire on Clement Lloyd as he raced his motorcyle around an Overtown street corner.

Lazano was eventually convicted of using too much force, but the decision was overturned by the Third District Court of Appeals. The case was so heated that a second trial was held in Orlando, which ended in acquittal.

Miami-Dade police, the county’s largest agency, has a less restrictive policy: They can fire into a vehicle if it “poses an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to another person.”

By moving away from the policy more in line with the county, Beach police hope to avoid controversial shootings that end in long drawn out court battles or lengthy investigations from prosecutors.

In 2002, Miami-Dade police closed in on a Lincoln Continental being driven by 20-year-old Eddie Lee Macklin during a Martin Luther King Day parade. Police said Macklin, who stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, tried to maneuver the car as county police officer James Anthony Johns jumped on the front hood.

Johns fired through the front window, killing the unarmed Macklin. Prosecutors ultimately concluded Johns was justified in his use of force, but not before calls from the NAACP and other civil rights groups for the officer’s prosecution ignited a community protest.

In July of last year the county updated its moving vehicle shoot policy to say an officer can only fire his weapon if there is an “imminent threat of death or physical injury to the officer or to another person, and there is no reasonable avenue of escape.”

Miami Beach police union president Alex Bello said he’s seen a draft copy of the new plan, but he wasn’t willing to go into detail until the final version is signed off on.

“The crux is reinforcing [to police officers] that you can’t shoot at or from a moving vehicle,” Bello said.

One prominent civil rights leader hailed the new policy, saying if it were in place 41 months ago it would have saved a lot of pain and suffering.

Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said a change in the city’s deadly force rules for vehicles was long overdue.

“It’s safer for police and safer for people inside the vehicle,” said Simon. “This is, I think, an intelligent change.”

On Memorial Day Weekend in 2011, 22-year-old Raymond Herisse, who had driven down from Palm Beach County to take part in the annual party scene, wound up dead in his car after a wild and still murky melee.

Police said Herisse sideswiped a number of cars and hit a patrol officer on a bicycle and that they began firing into his vehicle after it sped off after hitting the bicycle cop. No weapon was initially found in the car, though several days later police said they found a gun wrapped in a towel under the seat.

Caught in the crossfire during the Herisse shooting: Four bystanders who were seriously injured, and who have yet to be compensated for their injuries.

Though the shooting took place more than three years ago, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has yet to determine if officers used the proper amount of deadly force.

A recent example of a moving vehicle shoot shows just how difficult it can be to determine if police use proper force.

One evening last June, two Coral Gables cops fired into an SUV they said 17-year-old Jason Carulla had stolen. Carulla was killed as he sat behind the wheel of the vehicle in the parking lot of a Northwest Miami-Dade flea market.

Gables officers, working undercover and in tandem with county police, were part of a task force investigating stolen vehicles. Police say they spotted Carulla behind the wheel of a stolen Toyota Sequoia SUV, and when he got spooked and tried to flee, the teen ended up ramming an unmarked county police car that had pulled up behind him.

The Gables officers blew out the SUV’s front and back windshields, and the passenger window. Police said they were forced to fire their weapons because Carulla continued to accelerate even as he rammed the unmarked police car.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Spokesman Ed Griffith said prosecutors are likely to try and decide if Carulla knew the unmarked car was behind him as he tried to escape. They’re likely to try and determine if the car pulled up to block him as he was trying to get away, or if it was already there. And they will also try to figure out where the officers were when they fired their weapons.

To date, police haven’t said if Carulla had a weapon on him, other than the SUV he was driving.

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