The City of Miami Police Department is back in the news for embarrassing reasons. This past Thursday, Facebook user Lisa Harrell posted footage of MPD Officer Mario Figueroa taking a running start and attempting to kick a handcuffed black man, David V. Suazo, directly in the face. Miami PD claims in an arrest report that Suazo stole a Jeep, drove it into a wall, fled cops, and then tried to fight the officers, but some details in MPD's account of the events don't add up — and the official police report doesn't mention the face-punting incident.
Chief Jorge Colina suspended Figueroa (with pay) Thursday, but the case has ignited yet another round of discussions about Miami PD's record on policy misconduct. The department is currently being monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice after the DOJ issued a scathing report in 2013 stating that the department shot and killed way too many people of color. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez on Friday told New Times that, in the wake of the kicking incident, he wants to make it easier to suspend cops without pay when there is clear video or photographic evidence of misconduct.
However, this is far from the only recent allegation of police misconduct levied against MPD. In fact, numerous complaints and lawsuits have been filed against the department in the last 12 months alone — most of which would have gone completely unreported in the local press had New Times not covered the allegations. Here's a primer on the most egregious cases:
The strip search played out in broad daylight on a sidewalk near Mana Wynwood: As Wendy Matute screamed for help on the ground, two male Miami Police officers held her arms down while a female officer held her legs apart. Another female officer, Annette Delgado, unzipped Matute's shorts, pulled them partway down, and reached inside to grab three baggies of suspected drugs.
The invasive search by three street cops violated both Florida law and Miami Police Department rules, which require a supervising officer to sign off and forbid male officers from being involved. Yet the agency's internal affairs unit cleared Delgado and the other officers, ruling Delgado "felt she needed to retrieve the narcotics before transporting Ms. Matute because, if not, Ms. Matute would tamper and destroy the narcotics."
But the independent Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP) says that reasoning is nonsense because Matute was handcuffed and in no position to destroy the drugs in her pants. "Ms. Matute could have been transported to either the police station or [the county jail] by two officers in order for her actions to be monitored," CIP staff wrote in a report.
Around 1:30 a.m. January 16, 2016, the Miami Police Department received a call from a security service warning that a black man dressed conspicuously in a "teal long-sleeve shirt with pattern pants" used an ax to break into a Family Dollar store on NW 17th Street in Allapattah.
Yet within the hour, somehow two cops had placed Lyndon Gray — a music teacher wearing a black T-shirt and jeans — into a chokehold and thrown him into a police cruiser. The teacher for at-risk kids is now suing the department, saying MPD officers nearly killed him — all, he alleges, because he was black and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"The only thing Gray had in common with the suspect was that he was an African-American male," Gray's suit reads. "In fact, forty-seven percent of the population in the area is African-American."
Astoundingly, Gray contends in his suit that MPD had already caught the teal-clad burglar — a man named Timothy Dorch — and were waiting to review the store's security footage to match his ID when cops allegedly assaulted Gray and tossed him in the back of a squad car for two hours. Gray's lawyer, Faudlin Pierre, tells New Times that he and Gray didn't learn about Dorch until Pierre filed a records request nearly a year after the incident. He says his jaw dropped when he realized MPD had arrested two people for committing one crime.
"We later confirmed through surveillance video that my client was not involved in the crime," Pierre says. "They arrested him just because he asked for help."
Miami Police Lt. Javier Ortiz, the outspoken head of the city's cop union, has been temporarily reassigned to desk duty and stripped of his gun, New Times has confirmed. The move came after a judge granted a restraining order to a woman Ortiz allegedly harassed and doxxed online.
Robert Buschel, a Fraternal Order of Police attorney, says Ortiz will fight the restraining order.
"[The woman's] latest allegation... is false," Buschel says. "There will be at least one high-ranking police official who will testify on the record that he acted as a gentleman at all times."
Ortiz, who has repeatedly made national news by defending police shootings and criticizing celebrities such as Beyoncé, landed in hot water after a Tuesday meeting of the Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), an independent group that considers complaints against Miami Police officers.
The board heard from Claudia Castillo, a Miami woman who said she was was harassed and doxxed on Facebook by Ortiz last February after she reported a speeding cop in 2016. Ortiz posted her personal cell phone number and photos and encouraged his followers to call and disparage her. This past Tuesday, the CIP reprimanded Ortiz and said he'd broken department policy by posting her personal information.
After testifying, Castillo said she was worried for her safety and asked for an escort out of the building. Danny Suarez, a former CIP member and city commission candidate, walked her to the lobby. Suarez says Ortiz followed and then peered through several windows to watch Castillo leave.
"She had big concerns that he would follow her, and she didn't want him to know what kind of car she drove," Suarez says.
Ortiz was later placed back on street duty after the restraining order was lifted. He was then promoted from lieutenant to captain.
Since the 1990s, police departments across the nation have reevaluated when to chase suspects. If someone flees, cops' first instinct is to follow; thousands of TV episodes, back to Miami Vice and Starsky and Hutch, have trained the public that a cop's number one job is to chase down perpetrators, with no apparent concern for public property or consequences. But in 1990, the U.S. Department of Justice called police chases "the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities," and a 2015 USA Today investigation showed that high-speed pursuits have killed more than 5,000 innocent bystanders since 1979.
A new Miami lawsuit suggests exactly why police need to display caution when chasing down suspects: The complaint filed June 23 accuses undercover City of Miami cops of engaging in a high-speed pursuit that violated departmental policy and ultimately claimed the lives of a 21-year-old who was fleeing police and an innocent 44-year-old who suffered gruesome injuries and died on the scene.
Worse yet, the family of the bystander, Javier Muñoz, claims that because the cops were undercover, the department has not named the officers involved in the chase in the two years since the crash. (The City of Miami does not comment on active litigation.)
The accident was so gruesome it made local TV headlines two years ago. On November 9, 2015, police originally said they caught a black Infiniti "speeding" through Model City late that night and that the car was registered as stolen. They claim the driver, 21-year-old Lionel Dorilas, sped away southbound on NW 12th Avenue. But at NW 54th Street, cops claim, Dorilas lost control of the car, clipped Muñoz, who was biking on the sidewalk and talking on his cell phone, and dragged him until the car hit a tree and burst into flames.
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While the Brewers walloped the Marlins on a steamy June evening, a Miami Police officer working crowd control outside the team's Little Havana stadium pulled over a speeding silver Pontiac. The cop soon realized that the driver, 32-year-old Emmanuel Reyes, was wanted for previous traffic offenses. But when the officer tried to cuff him, he resisted. Her partner tasered the man during the scuffle, but that didn't work. And when Reyes reached below his seat, she pulled her gun and fired twice, hitting Reyes in the neck and stomach.
Reyes fell to the ground, screaming "You just killed me!" as blood spurted from a severed artery.
Reyes was wrong about that — he miraculously survived the shooting that night on June 12, 2013 — but four years later, he says he still suffers permanent physical and mental disabilities from that traffic stop gone wrong. Reyes, who didn't have a weapon in his car, is now suing the City of Miami, the cop who shot him, and her partner.
The city, though, denies the officers did anything wrong. And Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office has cleared the two officers involved, ruling they were within their rights to shoot Reyes because he grabbed a small tin box during the tussle as the officers tried to arrest him.
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."
The Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office cleared Torres of any wrongdoing in March 2016; he's still employed as a cop.
Correction: This story originally misstated the status of prosecutors' investigation into the Fritz Severe police shooting.