For 12 Miami-area police officers, killing an allegedly drunk driver in a hail of 116 bullets, shooting four innocent bystanders, costing city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal settlements, refusing to speak to local prosecutors, and drawing national scorn and embarrassment were not fireable offenses. In fact, none of the dozen cops faced anything close to punishment for firing their guns into a crowd of innocent people.
And now, six years after the infamous shooting, one of the cops just earned himself a promotion. According to city documents, Miami Beach Police Officer Kenne Espada, who fired eight rounds into 22-year-old Raymond Herisse during the Memorial Day weekend shooting, will be promoted to sergeant at a ceremony Friday.
Should a cop involved in arguably the city's worst shooting be eligible for a promotion? Miami Beach Police spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez notes that neither the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office nor his department's own internal affairs department ruled the shooting illegal.
"Soon-to-be Sergeant Espada’s actions were fully investigated by the State Attorney’s Office and subsequently by the MBPD Internal Affairs Unit," Rodriguez says. "There was no finding of misconduct. He successfully tested for promotion and is filling a current vacancy."
The case's details are well known to any longtime local. Hundreds of cops were working overtime duty for Memorial Day weekend 2011 in South Beach, which hosted the Urban Beach Week celebration popular among black tourists and residents.
May 30, 2011, Herisse drove to Miami Beach from Boynton Beach in a car he and a friend had borrowed. Police claimed that around 4 a.m., they pulled Herisse over for "burning out" the car's tires and making them squeal loudly to attract attention.
Hialeah Police Officer Marlon Espinoza initially stopped the borrowed blue Hyundai Sonata outside the Royal Palm Hotel near the intersection of 16th Street and Lincoln Road. Espinoza claimed he ordered Herisse out of the car, but the driver declined. The cop said Herisse then reached into the back of the car, which made the officer "concerned for his safety," according to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's final report on the shooting.
Espinoza said he reached through the car's window, but he claims Herisse responded by hitting the gas. The officer said the car nearly ran him over while trying to flee, and in response, he fired his .40-caliber Glock pistol three times at the car from a perch near the Royal Palm Hotel. A second Hialeah cop also fired shots from the same intersection. In the meantime, Herisse was filmed driving erratically across the road, careening onto the sidewalk, and smashing into a green Mercedez-Benz. But he kept driving.
By the time Herisse reached 14th Street, six cops — one from Hialeah and five from Miami Beach, including Espada, with his .40-caliber Sig Sauer drawn — stood ready to meet the car. They fired a barrage of bullets. The State Attorney's Office said
According to the New York Times, one bystander was shot so close to his heart that doctors were unable to safely remove the bullet. Another victim was hit in the hip and needed surgery to piece her bones back together. A third was struck in the arm and leg and "suffered a nervous breakdown," and a fourth took a bullet to the arm.
Multiple shots also hit Herisse, and the Hyundai came to a halt at the next intersection. But Herisse never had a chance to explain why he stopped the car. Police say he refused commands to step out of the vehicle — multiple bystander videos show cops surrounding the stopped vehicle, but in a split second, the officers flipped from apprehending the driver to pumping his car full of at least 44 bullets, killing him.
Investigators later determined 16 shots hit Herisse. Officer Espada's bullets struck him twice.
Video from the shooting illuminated how chaotic and poorly handled the scene truly was: After the shooting, cops were filmed pointing guns randomly into innocent bystanders' cars, and witnesses said cops confiscated phones that had been used to record the shooting.
At the time, the officers claimed they were forced to fire on Herisse's car to stop him from hitting innocent people. They also claimed that when they finally cornered the vehicle at 13th Street and Collins Avenue, Herisse "appeared" to have been reaching for a gun, which sparked the unmitigated blast of bullets.
But the official account is full of inconsistencies: Investigators later determined Herisse never fired a gun, and the official police account changed three times as the controversy lingered. It took officers three days to obtain a warrant and search the car. They initially claimed they found a gun wrapped in a towel underneath the driver's seat. Then the story changed: Cops later said the gun was wrapped in a T-shirt under the rear
Herisse's family also questioned the reliability of many of the officers: Espinoza initially claimed other people were inside the Hyundai, which turned out to be incorrect.
Moreover, it's virtually certain that the officers should never have fired at the car in the first place. At the time, Miami Beach Police did not have a formal rule banning cops from firing at moving cars, but the practice has been banned for years in other jurisdictions throughout Miami-Dade. Injuring or killing a driver can turn a car into an uncontrollable, multiton projectile, which is the exact situation cops claimed they were trying to avoid in the Herisse case.
Frustratingly, Florida law lets police officers choose whether they want to cooperate with state investigators. None of the cops who killed Herisse gave statements to Rundle's office. (Beach PD also refused to release public records about the case until a judge intervened.)
Rundle cleared all of the cops anyway — despite protests from Herisse's family. In typical fashion for her office, the case took four years to complete. The officers escaped punishment thanks to a state statute: Rundle's office said that once Herisse drove away from the officers, he became what's known as a "fleeing felon," which therefore justified the unexplained hail of bullets.
“Regardless of the wisdom of opening fire” in a crowd of people, the prosecutors wrote, “the inescapable legal conclusion is that the officers cannot be charged with a crime” because of the fleeing-felon rule.
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Herisse's family, as well as the four bystanders wounded by the cops, later sued both Miami Beach and Hialeah Police Departments. Herisse's mother, Marcelline Azor, claimed that because gun-powder analysis showed Herisse never fired a shot and that his fingerprints weren't even on the gun, police had no reason to kill her son. Miami Beach Police paid her a $87,500 settlement. The officers have never fully explained what set off the final volley of bullets that killed the 22-year-old.
Once he's officially promoted tomorrow, Espada will also receive a raise.
Update: After this story was published, Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police President Bobby Jenkins accused New Times of trying to drum up web-traffic by bringing up the Memorial Day shooting:
As the Miami New Times story denotes, Officer Kenne Espada was found to be justified in the discharge of his firearm during the events that occurred on May 30, 2011. Officer Espada has long been an exemplary officer at the department and fully deserves to be appointed into this new position. It is shameful that Mr. Iannelli and Mr. [Chuck Strouse, New Times' editor-in-chief] would stoop to the level of getting the community unnecessarily riled up just to get clicks to their site. Any attempt to discredit Officer Espada and his accomplishments is simply gratuitous in nature and irresponsible journalism by the Miami New Times, at best.