Fritz Severe's family believes police had no need to shoot him dead June 11, 2015. Severe was homeless, unarmed, and not posing much of a threat to anyone. He was standing in a park outside the Culmer/Overtown Branch Library and holding a three-foot-long metal pipe. According to the Miami Herald, a park worker called 911 to complain that Severe might have been bothering nearby children attending summer camp. But other witnesses said Severe was in the park every day and always carried his "little stick."
Rather than usher Severe away from the group of children, Miami Police Officer Antonio Torres rolled up and fired five shots into Severe's body, killing him in front of more than 50 horrified kids. Multiple witnesses told the Herald that Severe never swung the pipe at the cop. Witnesses said Severe visited the park every single day, and they questioned why the cop didn't taser or try to subdue Severe before killing him.
Now Severe's family is suing the City of Miami and the police officer in federal court.
"This has a permanent scarring effect on young kids who witnessed something they shouldn't have," the family's lawyer, Richard Diaz, himself a former cop, tells New Times. "The collateral damage is, I think in some ways, even greater than the shooting itself."
Two years after the killing, the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office has not charged Torres with a crime, and he still has a job as a Miami cop.
Though police at the national and local levels have been criticized for not being better trained to handle mentally ill or drug-addled civilians, Diaz says Torres would still have received enough training to know not to shoot Severe dead simply for holding a metal pipe in a park. Diaz says that when he was a cop, he was trained to try to talk subjects like Severe down and persuade them to drop something like a metal pipe before approaching. If that didn't work, Diaz says, he would have either called for backup and tried to surround Severe or at the very least used a Taser instead of a gun.
"They train you in the police academy to deal with mental health, with people on drugs," Diaz says. "They train you how to talk to them and talk them down. The use of force is a last resort, but it does not appear here that all the prior opportunities to diffuse the situation were utilized." Torres has been a cop for more than 20 years.
At best, the incident reeks of poor training and decision-making. At worst, it screams racial bias. Would Torres have shot a white man walking around with a metal rod or a two-by-four? Would a cop have even deemed that suspicious?
"At the end of the day, it's not illegal to hold a pipe in a public park," Diaz says.
Severe's mother, François Severe, is suing the City of Miami and Torres for civil rights violations and wrongful death. (As a rule, the City of Miami does not comment on active litigation.) In the suit, the family cited the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013 tore Miami PD apart for what the DOJ said was a clear pattern of unconstitutional shootings:
Based on our comprehensive review, we find reasonable cause to believe that MPD engages in a pattern or practice of executive use of force with respect to firearm discharges. We arrived at this conclusion based on interviews of relevant witnesses; a careful review of MPD policies; reviews of investigative files in connection with incidents of firearm discharges; and reviews of policies and practices related to internal investigations of uses of deadly force. Among other findings, our investigation uncovered a number of troubling MPD practices, including deficient tactics and supervision as well as significant delays in substantive deficiencies in deadly force investigations.
New Times has also previously reported on Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's curious decision not to bring charges against Torres. Diaz says he's not certain whether Rundle's office had closed out its investigation into the shooting, but the shooting was not on a list of open cases her office provided New Times last week. Earlier this year, Rundle's office charged North Miami cop Jonathan Aledda with attempted manslaughter and culpable negligence for shooting Charles Kinsey, an unarmed black man trying to help an autistic person. In that instance, no one died.
Severe's killing eventually received national attention. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement later investigated the case, and witnesses told national and international news outlets that Severe frequented the park regularly and loved to carry the metal pipe.
“He was a homeless man, wasn’t bothering nobody,” witness Nichelle Green told the Guardian. “The man walks around, we see him every morning with his stick, the same little stick that he had in his hand when the police officer shot him five times.”
Diaz says that, as a former cop, he's the sort of person who gives officers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to shootings. He says he only takes on cases that appear to be egregious and clearcut — and in his view, this case falls into the latter category.
"If the shooting occurs as we understand it did, you’ve got kids watching in a community park," he says. "In a huge city like Miami, with all the problems we have nowadays with police, the damage goes beyond that of the person killed. This creates an indelible image for these children for the rest of their lives. They'll go on to form conclusions about police and their respect for the law."
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.