The gunshots rang out around 10:30 a.m. yesterday, sending panicked customers at an Aventura shopping center with a Whole Foods, Target, and Best Buy running for cover. Only after the dust settled was it clear where the gunfire had originated: from two Aventura PD officers who had each fired rounds at a car driven by an unarmed man who'd allegedly just shoplifted videogames.
No bystanders were hit, but Aventura PD has faced questions over the decision to fire amid a busy midmorning crowd. Today, the department pushed back. The shots were fired, they say, because the suspect was threatening to use his car as a weapon.
"If deadly force is being used against my officers, they have a right to defend themselves. That's the bottom line," Maj. William "Skip" Washa Jr., a department spokesman, tells New Times. "It's just like a guy trying to point a gun at an officer. If you're standing in front of a car, you're going to have to protect yourself."
The officers took the crowd into account before firing, he says, as evidenced by the fact that no bystanders were hit.
"The car received the majority of the rounds," he says. "If there were 40 shoppers nearby, they may not have fired. But if you're right next the car, you have a high confidence you'll hit the target."
Indeed, Aventura's policy allows officers to fire at cars if they think the driver is threatening them with the vehicle.
But that type of policy has become a lightening rod for other departments around South Florida, for the very reasons illustrated in yesterday's shootout: It gives cops wide range to fire at suspects who are often unarmed and in crowded places.
Most famously, Miami Beach tweaked its policy after a Memorial Day weekend incident when police fired hundreds of rounds at a car and hit four innocent bystanders in the process. The City of Miami changed its rules after a similarly contentious shooting at an Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade; those departments now require that a suspect in a car flash a weapon before officers are allowed to fire.
Two years ago, New Times looked into the justification's use in Miami-Dade Police Department shootings. Here's what we found:
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That excuse is beginning to wear a bit thin. Nearly a quarter of the shootings by MDPD this year have involved officers opening fire on someone armed with only a car, including a case three months earlier when cops shot and killed suspected jewelry thief Orestes Fernandez after he, too, allegedly tried to run over an officer.
Of the 17 MDPD-involved shootings so far in 2012, four of them involved cops allegedly protecting themselves from vehicular assault. (Because all four cases remain open, the department declined to provide incident reports, and a spokesman declined to comment.)
The frequency of such shootings raises questions about whether cops are breaking protocol by putting themselves in harm's way. "Their policy prohibits using deadly force to stop fleeing felons," says one officer from another local police force, who asked that his name not be used. "These are just people trying to get away, but they end up paying a much heavier price for it."
Aventura's shooting began when Target security called police to report a man -- later identified as 30-year-old Jimmy J. Daniel -- was prying videogames from their cases and stuffing them into his pants. When police caught up to him in his black Acura, Daniel allegedly sped at the officers, who responded with gunfire.
Daniel was apparently hit only by flying glass and fled north on Biscayne Boulevard. He was later found and arrested in North Lauderdale.