Five days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Charles R. Press — president of the Miami-Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police — told a group of protesters in Coral Gables that what happened in Minnesota was despicable.
"It's not accepted here in Miami-Dade," Press said into a microphone.
The crowd didn't buy it. "That's a lie!" someone shouted back.
As the movement against police brutality rages across the U.S., many people have begun to look for injustices in their own backyards. In Miami-Dade County, it's not difficult to find examples — in fact, what Minneapolis police did to Floyd is remarkably similar to what happened in a 2010 case in the City of Miami.
Although he lived to tell the story, Pedro Brito says he, too, became unconscious after a Miami cop pinned his knee into Brito's neck outside the Epic Hotel ten years ago. And when Brito filed a lawsuit, the City of Miami successfully argued that the officer and his partner were blameless under Florida's Stand Your Ground law. The decision was heralded by the City Attorney's Office in a 2017 bulletin of recent highlights.
Because of his own experience, Brito tells New Times he was shaken up when he saw the video of Officer Derek Chauvin pinning Floyd to the ground with his knee.
"The officer's kneeling on his neck like it's no big deal, like he didn't even care. That's really frightening," Brito says. "That could have easily happened to me."
Brito's encounter with Miami police took place on June 27, 2010, when he was attending an '80s party at the Epic Hotel with his wife, his brother, and some friends. At the end of the night when he went to pay the bill, Brito says, the hotel's credit-card machine and ATM were broken, so he left his driver's license with the bartender as collateral and requested his car from the valet so he could get cash at an ATM down the street.
Brito was helping his brother, Carlos, who uses a wheelchair, into the passenger seat when Miami police Sgt. Moses Martinez told everyone to get out of the car and threatened to take them to jail for skipping out on the bar tab. Brito says he turned around, confused and a little annoyed, put his hands behind his back, and mockingly told the officer, "Look, if you're gonna arrest someone, arrest me."
He says he then felt someone pick him up and slam his body to the ground. Thinking he was being attacked by another clubgoer for some unknown reason, he threw a few punches.
"I didn't know who was attacking me," he would recall in a 2016 deposition. "The last person I would think that would be attacking me was an officer."
According to witnesses, Martinez threw Brito to the ground and began punching him. Brito says he went in and out of consciousness.
"I remember waking up from being unconscious and still getting punched on the floor with my head hitting the floor," he testified. "His knee was on my neck and [I remember] just getting punched, getting punched. I remember me bracing myself for the punches as I was waking up... When I woke up I was already handcuffed."
Seeing what was happening to his brother, Carlos Brito says he got into his wheelchair and attempted to intervene. That's when another Miami cop, Officer Walter Byars, got involved.
"And I know I rolled up to him and said, hey, my brother is unconscious, my brother is unconscious. Stop hitting him," Carlos Brito recalled in his own deposition. "When I did that, an officer grabbed me from my back. He lifted me up — he lifted — he lifted me up off my wheelchair, threw me on the floor, which was very, very embarrassing for me because my pants dropped."
A woman who'd been at the hotel bar that night, Cristina Fossati, pulled out her Blackberry to start recording.
"We went outside and we went to get my car from valet, and, you know, there was a commotion, a little bit of commotion," she said in a deposition. "When I looked over, I saw one of the police officers, Officer Byars, beating up this guy in a wheelchair."
According to Fossati, Byars saw the Blackberry's flash go off and turned toward her. She said he grabbed her arm, twisted it behind her back, and handcuffed her.
In her deposition, Fossati said she never saw her Blackberry again and isn't sure whether it captured any images of the officers. A hotel security guard testified in court that Byars went to the Epic on his personal time the following morning and picked up the phone.
The Brito brothers and Fossati were arrested on various charges of battery, disorderly intoxication, and resisting arrest. Although the charges were eventually dismissed, the three filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the City of Miami in 2014.
City attorneys mounted a defense under the state's controversial Stand Your Ground law. And in 2017, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Norma Lindsey found that the officers "reasonably feared" for their safety and granted the city immunity on the claims of battery.
Jeffrey Jacobs, the attorney for the three plaintiffs, tells New Times "it was a terrible ruling" that he saw no point in appealing because Lindsey was appointed to the appellate court shortly after issuing the ruling.
"It's hard to believe that police officers would — where, with two brothers who quite frankly are not that large, one of them in a wheelchair — be in fear for their life when there's several other police officers around and people watching," Jacobs says.
Jacobs also believes the police unnecessarily escalated the situation that night.
"They have some specialized training that we as a society would expect them to be calmer in the situation than the average individual and not escalate the situation," he says.
Although the incident happened a decade ago, Pedro Brito says it continues to haunt him. Physically, he says he is plagued by tremors and blurred vision he attributes to being battered by Martinez. He also says he remains fearful of police officers and doesn't go out as much as he once did.
After what happened to him and his brother, he says, he understands that if police brutality occurs without video footage, "You're pretty much screwed on your own."
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"They attack you and then they write down whatever they want. It's their word against yours," he says.
According to the Miami Police Department, Sgt. Martinez retired in September 2019.
Officer Byars continues to work with MPD in youth outreach, dressing as Santa Claus each year for Christmas. On May 29, four days after Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, he was featured in a Miami Police Athletic League video that offered sympathies to Floyd's loved ones.
"Today... we had a needed and heartfelt discussion with our youth during these challenging times," a fellow officer tweeted, tagging Byars in the post. "Our condolences to George Floyd's family."