Mayor Francis Suarez
Mayor Francis Suarez

Miami Mayor Wants Faster Police Misconduct Punishments in Wake of Head-Kicking Video

The Miami Police Department took swift action yesterday after a bystander filmed Officer Mario Figueroa attempting to kick a handcuffed man directly in the head. Newly appointed Chief Jorge Colina suspended the officer and promised a full investigation. But activists are still raging today, demanding to know why the other officers on the scene weren't suspended and why Figueroa is suspended with pay.

Now, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez says he too is upset by the video — and, in fact, plans to push for changes in the city's police-disciplinary policies so officers can be punished more quickly in cases of obvious misconduct.

"When there's video evidence, I think this policy of 'suspension with pay' is something I think is a little outdated," Suarez tells New Times.

The mayor will soon have a chance to demand those changes. The city is renegotiating its contract with the Fraternal Order of Police union May 23. It marks the first time the city's new mayor, new police chief, and new union head (Officer Edward Lugo, a cop who once nearly lost his job in an FBI sting, took over for infamous former FOP president Javier Ortiz last year) will have to agree on a labor contract. In the wake of the latest misconduct video, Suarez says he'll ask for stricter police disciplinary procedures at the negotiating table.

Suarez, who is also trying to persuade the city to make him a "strong mayor" with more administrative power, says he will call for "suspension without pay in cases where there’s clear evidence of a violation of policy," such as cases where there's clear video evidence of wrongdoing. (Suarez gave similar comments to the Miami Herald this afternoon as well.)

The mayor also says he will follow up on those demands with State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. Miami-Dade's top prosecutor, who has objectively gone easy on problem cops during her 25-year tenure, issued an unusually stern statement yesterday that she was "shocked and appalled" by what she saw in the clip and had referred the case to her public corruption unit.

Suarez's push for quicker punishment comes as critics question why the other cops on the scene of the abuse didn't mention the fact that Figueroa kicked the suspect, David V. Suazo, in the head. The police report notes multiple officers were wearing body cameras, but any footage that might exist has not yet been released to the public. Suazo is accused of stealing a Jeep Cherokee and driving it into a wall before fleeing cops. However, some details in the arrest form, such as claims that Suazo was "tensing up" his body while being arrested, don't seem to jibe with the video footage, which shows Suazo on the ground letting cops cuff him.

Because police reports are sworn documents, some observers have questioned whether such an omission counts as a potential case of perjury. Miami Commission Chair Keon Hardemon, whose district includes the Overtown neighborhood where the beating occurred, called Figueroa "disgusting and cowardly" but said on Twitter that he was more disappointed in the other cops in the video for doing nothing to stop the brutality:

Suarez says that, though the incident reports from the arrest yesterday did not mention the kicking incident, a supervisor's report that has not yet been released to the media indeed states Figueroa kicked a defenseless man in the face. Suarez says this conforms with departmental policy.

But other critics say MPD must do more to crack down on officers who fail to report misconduct. State Rep. David Richardson says he called Suarez and asked that the police department suspend the other cops on the scene until a full investigation is completed. Richardson has made a name as a state lawmaker for conducting personal investigations into brutality and misconduct within the state prison system; he says yesterday's footage is reminiscent of prison-misconduct videos.

"I saw the video this morning, and it reminded me of so much of the work I did with prison reform, so I wanted to take some action," says Richardson, a Democrat running in the primary to replace Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in D.C. "What I said to the mayor was that I see the police chief has made a statement that this action is a 'clear violation of policy.' My question to him, then, was what is the policy if officers witness brutality? Can they ignore it, or do they have a duty to report it? These men need to be taken off the beat and have no contact with the citizens until this is resolved."

Likewise, documentary filmmaker Billy Corben criticized the city for not taking action against the other officers. Corben also blasted Rundle's poor record when it comes to police-misconduct cases. A New Times investigation last year noted Rundle's office routinely lets police brutality cases sit open for years, effectively stopping victims from filing civil rights lawsuits.

"There are numerous appalling cases of officers committing perjury where video evidence conclusively proves they’re lying, and Kathy Rundle has taken no action," Corben says in an email. "This is a grave dereliction of duty. Police officers have the power to deprive us of life, liberty, and property, and her failure over the last 25 years to hold them accountable for abusing that power has led to a proliferation of public corruption and the deterioration of our criminal justice system in Miami-Dade County."

Rundle's office has repeatedly declined to prosecute seemingly stone-cold cases of police perjury: Then-Lt. Javier Ortiz, an infamously complaint-prone cop who ran the police union until stepping down last year, has been accused of perjury and falsifying reports multiple times during his career. In 2011, he and a group of officers claimed that an Ultra Music Festival attendee had tried to fight MPD cops working security that day and that Ortiz and his team were then forced to taser and arrest the man. Instead, video evidence demonstrably showed Ortiz had lied on a written police report, and a local defense attorney reported Ortiz's conduct to Rundle's office and suggested he and the other officers involved be prosecuted. Her team never charged any of the cops involved.

Some local politicians have already noted they don't have much faith in the State Attorney's Office to take proper action against the cops involved. Commissioner Hardemon predicts Rundle will find a way to excuse Figueroa's actions.

"First, I predict the SAO will close its investigation citing that no crime was committed because [the] officer missed when he kicked at [the] arrestee," he quipped on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio met with Miami PD officers this morning and posed for photographs — but so far has not made a public statement about yesterday's brutality.

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