Mom of Unarmed Miami Man Killed by Police Says Ferguson Issues Remain in South Florida
Sheila McNeil: "You try to change things for the better."
As Ferguson, Missouri, has descended into a nightmarish vision of a dystopian police state, few have watched the growing clashes between protesters and authorities with a perspective quite like Sheila McNeil's.
As a young woman in Overtown, McNeil lived through Miami's own version of Ferguson — the McDuffie riots that tore through the neighborhood in 1980. And three years ago, a police officer shot and killed McNeil's unarmed son, 28-year-old Travis McNeil.
Worst of all, the very same day that the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, McNeil got word that Officer Reynoldo Goyos — the Miami cop who had been fired after killing her son — would be rehired and awarded all of his back pay.
It has left McNeil reeling and reflecting on the knife's edge that Miami sat on when her son became the seventh black man killed by cops in seven months in 2010-11.
"It was a slap in the face," says McNeil, sitting in her tidy Wynwood apartment on a recent weekday and holding an old photo of Travis. "It was really difficult to watch what's happening up there in Ferguson and knowing there's no justice here in Miami either."
McNeil was born in Virginia but moved to Miami as a child with her mom, three sisters, and a brother. They settled in Overtown, which in 1980 erupted into violence. The spark was a black man named Arthur McDuffie, who was killed by four white cops. When the officers were acquitted of criminal charges, riots broke out.
"It was crazy and scary," McNeil recalls. "I remember windows shattering, fights in the street. My mother made us all stay indoors."
Three decades later, when McNeil found herself at the heart of another police injustice, she was determined not to see the same reaction. Her son was killed during a late-night traffic stop. Police claimed he refused to show his hands, prompting Goyos to shoot him multiple times, but investigators found that McNeil was unarmed.
As protests grew over his death and the six other fatal police shootings, Sheila McNeil helped lead marches and rallies and preached peaceful responses. "I didn't want my son's name associated with more violence," she says.
Goyos was later fired and Chief Miguel Exposito was forced out over the string of shootings. The Justice Department found last summer that the Miami Police Department had used excessive force in the killings and ordered a federal monitor.
But Goyos will now get his job back. An arbitrator sided with the police union, which argued that the new chief, Manuel Orosa, didn't have just cause to can him over the shooting.
Miami PD refused to provide Riptide with the arbitrator's report or the amount of back pay Goyos will receive, citing an ongoing legal review. But advocates are outraged by the move.
"It just deepens distrust in the community because it gives the perception that police will never be held accountable," says Larry Handfield, an attorney and former member of the Civilian Investigative Panel, which looks into complaints against police. "It's the same root issue, whether in Ferguson, Missouri, or Miami, Florida."
McNeil says she's now concentrating on an ongoing federal lawsuit against the city over her son's death and trying to focus on the positive, like Exposito's firing and the lack of violence after her son's death. Travis' birthday was earlier this month, and the family gathered at his grave.
"You try to change things for the better," she says. "But I worry it will never change, because police still come to this neighborhood only when something bad happens, when someone gets shot. It'll never really change until they don't approach our neighborhoods that way."
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