Taser death in Miami Beach leads to new policy and stun guns

The family of Israel ‘Reefa’ Hernandez speaks to protesters in December 2014 in Wynwood after a police-involved death in New York.
The family of Israel ‘Reefa’ Hernandez speaks to protesters in December 2014 in Wynwood after a police-involved death in New York. Miami Herald File

More than two years after a teenage graffiti artist lost a foot race with police, was stunned by a Taser and then died of heart failure, Miami Beach has purchased new and more “advanced” weapons and changed the rules of how the electronic device is deployed.

Officers can no longer aim a Taser at the chest area of a suspect, can’t fire if there is no immediate threat or if a suspect is handcuffed, and can’t intimidate or control a crowd with the weapon. If a subject isn’t subdued after three firings, the shooting must stop.

The department also spent $500,000 to buy “more compassionate and technologically advanced weapons” that use less energy and capture more information to be studied after a Taser has been used. The new Tasers have lasers to pinpoint targets and are yellow, limiting the likelihood that an officer in a stressful situation accidentally grabs a gun when going for the electronic device.

The changes come after the death of graffiti artist Israel “Reefa” Hernandez Llach, a series of embarrassing and potentially deadly incidents in Miami Beach that made international headlines, and a review of policing policies by Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement research institute that makes policy recommendations.

“This is not deadly force; it’s an intermediate weapon. We’re obviously trying to stay ahead of the curve,” Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates said. “It’s unseemly and bad optics to be sparking the weapon as some type of crowd control device.”

The controversy surrounding the Taser — at least in Miami Beach — deepened after the August 2013 death of Hernandez Llach. He was chased several blocks through North Beach after police found him spray-painting a McDonald’s. When police finally caught up with him, Officer Jorge Mercado shot the local street artist with his department-issued Taser.

The family has filed a lawsuit in state court against Taser International and the city of Miami Beach. Hernandez Llach family attorney Todd Falzone said new policies are needed — but they should have been implemented years ago.

“It’s interesting they’re making the changes now — a little late,” Falzone said. “But they don’t address the real problem, the actual danger of the device.”

Tasers are hand-held electronic devices that look like guns but eject electronic prongs that attach to a suspect and emit up to 50,000 volts. They are designed to stun someone into submission.

We’re obviously trying to stay ahead of the curve.

Dan Oates, Miami Beach police chief

Hernandez Llach, 18, died after being taken to Mount Sinai Medical Center. In March 2014, the Miami-Dade County medical examiner determined the cause of death was heart failure from the “energy device discharge.” The Miami-Dade state attorney later cleared Mercado of criminal wrongdoing.

The medical examiner’s finding was a milestone: It was the first time since the Taser was introduced to police over a decade ago that the controversial electronic device had been cited in an official cause of death in Florida. Most deaths had been linked to a delirium caused by drug use or mental illness.

At least four people died in Miami-Dade last year after they were stunned by a Taser. Some deaths have been high profile, like the September 2013 death of Norman Oosterbroek, a 280-pound former bodyguard for Lady Gaga. He was struck by the Taser’s electronic prongs while downing drugs, and died a few hours later.

After his death, Hernandez Llach, not known outside some corners of Miami Beach, became a cause celebre. Activists staged sit-ins, and at one point were jailed on purpose after civil disobedience at the U.S. attorney’s office in downtown Miami.

It’s interesting they’re making the changes now — a little late.

Hernandez Llach family attorney Todd Falzone

On Thursday, Police Chief Oates cited the Hernandez Llach incident and the death of 44-year-old Eric Harris of Tulsa, Oklahoma — an unarmed man who was accidentally shot to death in April by 73-year-old reserve deputy Robert Charles Baxter — as reasons for the change in Tasers. Baxter apologized to the Harris family and said he mistook his gun for his Taser.

The Miami Beach chief also said officers should have a better opportunity to hit their target because of lasers that will now project from the electronic devices. The new policy also instructs officers to shoot above the groin area and below chest level, or in the back, the chief said.

It also instructs officers not to fire their weapons to disperse crowds.

In May 2014, Miami Beach police Officer Giordano Cardoso was cleared of any wrongdoing by internal affairs after an investigation into an incident at businessman Thomas Kramer’s Star Island home. Cardoso used his Taser to disperse a large crowd during an Art Basel event in December.

In the crowd that night trying to get into the home was Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who told a police supervisor on scene that Cardoso’s actions were “out of control.”

Oates was offered the job in Miami Beach only a few weeks before that Taser incident. He took control a month after the internal affairs finding, in June.

Police union President Bobby Jenkins said late Thursday afternoon he hadn’t seen the policy changes, and reserved comment. Miami Beach Commissioner and former state prosecutor Michael Grieco said he’s all for change, provided officers receive proper training.

“If we're going to add safeguards to increase the likelihood that we do not have a death or serious bodily injury,” he said, “I'm all for it.”

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.

Charles Rabin: 305-376-3672, @ChuckRabin