South Florida Cops Misuse Tasers, With Deadly Results

South Florida Cops Misuse Tasers, With Deadly Results
Illustration by Brian Stauffer

Richard Rosengarten walked into Publix at 4:20 p.m. November 15, 2013. Normally, not even Rosengarten, a brilliant and bespectacled University of Miami law student, would remember the exact date and time he went grocery shopping. But it's not every day you see cops electrify an innocent man.

The supermarket's automatic doors parted with a whisper. Ten feet in front of Rosengarten stood Vincent Miller, a tall, powerfully built Miami Police officer recently returned from a ten-month overseas military tour. The officer's broad back was turned to the law student. Between the hulking cop and a sale display cowered a dirty and disheveled man.

"If you ever come here again, I will beat your ass," Miller threatened the homeless man. Then the cop removed the Taser from his belt and thrust it into the man's chest. Rosengarten saw the weapon crackle with 50,000 volts.

The homeless man moaned and curled into himself. Miller zapped him again and then yanked him to his feet. As the officer dragged the man outside, two Publix employees stood nearby, laughing.

What worried Rosengarten most, however, was not the brutality of the arrest. It was that there was no arrest. The homeless man wasn't charged with a crime: He was simply thrown onto the street in pain. Miller didn't even fill out a report on the incident. Instead, it seemed as if the cop were meting out punishment on his own, without a court order.

The incident "shocked my conscience," Rosengarten wrote in a complaint three days later. "I believe Officer Miller engaged in unwarranted abuse of the man he tased."

The previously unreported event is just one of dozens of troubling taserings uncovered by a yearlong New Times investigation into Miami-Dade's three largest police departments.

In one instance, Miami-Dade Police shocked a 6-year-old boy. In another, a 12-year-old girl was tasered.

In less than eight years, Miami Police, Miami-Dade Police, and Miami Beach Police officers have used their Tasers more than 3,000 times. At least 11 men have died after being tasered by cops during that same period, including five in the past 16 months. On average, at least one person per day is tasered by police.

Some of those tasered were violent criminals. But most were unarmed, many posed no threat to police, and some were suspected of minor infractions such as loitering or skateboarding. In one instance, Miami-Dade Police shocked a 6-year-old boy. In another, cops tasered a 12-year-old girl for playing hooky.

Even more troubling than the sheer frequency of these taserings is how they disproportionately affect the poor, homeless, and mentally ill. Unlike their white-collar counterparts, shoplifters are regularly subjected to potentially fatal force. Mentally ill Miamians, meanwhile, are being shocked repeatedly for infractions they often don't fully understand.

As the incident involving Officer Miller suggests, local cops are also using their Tasers without reporting it. There is no way to know how many instances of police abuse are flying under the radar every year. These secret taserings aren't just unethical. They're illegal.

Miami Police say Rosengarten's complaint has recently been reopened and is now under review. But all three police departments argue that Tasers remain important crime-fighting tools. "Taser weapons have proven to save lives and dramatically reduce injuries to suspects and officers," says Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle.

The evidence of Taser abuse uncovered by New Times comes at a time of nationwide outrage over police brutality. The lack of indictments against police officers in the Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice cases have stoked fears that a quarter-century after Rodney King, cops are still above the law in America. Protests have mostly focused on police-involved shootings, and Miami is no stranger to such scandals. All three main departments recently have been scrutinized for suspicious shootings, and Miami PD remains under federal supervision for killing seven black men in eight months.

But in some ways, Taser abuse is having an even greater effect than shootings in South Florida. A steady stream of excessive, at times secret, taserings is stoking anger toward authorities. By overusing these devices, Miami cops are burning through the community's trust and tax dollars. Worst of all, they are burning through young men.

"You can no longer call these weapons 'nonlethal,' because they have been involved in the deaths of literally hundreds of people [nationally]," says Baylor Johnson, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "There is real danger in treating Tasers as a weapon of convenience. It doesn't respect the danger that these weapons have."


Today, Tasers are used in more than 17,000 American police departments, including Miami, Miami-Dade, and Miami Beach. Taser International has become a $1.37 billion company with tremendous clout in Congress, courtrooms, and even coroners' offices. Amid its extraordinary rise, Taser has time and again weathered controversies and withstood criticism, all while winning contracts with one law enforcement agency after another.

Nowhere is this truer than in South Florida, which has seen some of the most controversial moments in the weapon's history.

Tasers were invented in the late 1960s by NASA aerospace scientist Jack Cover, who was dismayed by the number of plane hijackings that ended in deadly shootouts. After reading a news article about a man immobilized, but not injured, by an electric fence, Cover began tinkering with electronic currents and created a device that shot metallic barbs.

But Cover's early creations had shortcomings. Because they used gunpowder, they were considered firearms and could not be easily purchased by private citizens. Police departments, meanwhile, found them unreliable. When the Broward Sheriff's Office began using Tasers in 1981, it quickly ditched the devices. "They just didn't work as well as we had hoped," Maj. Richard Simpson told the Miami Herald three years later.

Many of the departments that continued using Tasers soon ran into trouble. In Pinellas County, police used a Taser during a standoff with a suicidal 15-year-old Miami runaway. When Louis Phillip Solomon was struck by the weapon, his body seized up, causing him to pull the trigger and fatally shoot himself in the head.

Tasers also played a role in the most infamous police beating in American history. When white Los Angeles Police officers savagely pummeled black motorist Rodney King in 1991, they shocked him so many times with Tasers that King was covered in burn marks.

 

South Florida Cops Misuse Tasers, With Deadly Results
Illustration by Joseph Laney

Four years later, LAPD issued some of the first guidelines limiting the use of Tasers. Around the same time, Tasers themselves underwent a transformation. Two brothers, Rick and Tom Smith, approached Cover with plans to modernize the weapon. With Cover's help, they created a Taser that used gas instead of gunpowder so it could be sold over the counter. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, federal grants greased the wheels for local agencies to buy new, more powerful Tasers for $800 each. Hollywood was the first South Florida police department to snap up the weapons in 2001. Miami Police purchased them in 2002 and debuted them a year later, tasering several protesters at the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit. Miami-Dade Police began issuing Tasers to its Special Response Team (SRT) officers in 2003.

That same year, the department become engulfed in controversy when MDPD officers fatally shot two mentally ill men within eight days of each other. The killings led to calls for MDPD to create crisis intervention teams to deal with mentally ill suspects.

Instead, police director Carlos Alvarez gave every patrol sergeant a new Taser. Alvarez's approach paid off -- at least for him. He was elected county mayor November 6, 2004, largely on his reputation for being tough on crime. By the time he took office, the number of MDPD Tasers had risen to 422.

But even as local cops were loading up on Tasers, some federal agencies were shunning them because of an incident in Miami. On November 14, 2003, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Salvatore Dimiceli traveled to Miami from Ohio for a Taser training session. As part of his training, Dimiceli was shot with a Taser. But instead of emerging unscathed, he claimed he suffered permanent damage to his arms.

ICE banned its agents from using Tasers less than a month later. Several other federal agencies soon followed. (Dimiceli and his wife sued Taser in federal court but voluntarily dismissed the complaint in 2006.)

It didn't take long for controversy to find Miami's police forces and their new Tasers. Less than a week after Alvarez's mayoral election, news broke that his officers had tasered a kindergartner. Isaiah Allen was a troubled 6-year-old at Kelsey Pharr Elementary School in Liberty City. When he threw a tantrum and picked up a piece of glass, his principal called 911.

Two Miami-Dade cops couldn't persuade Isaiah to drop the shard. So they called their supervisor to ask if they were allowed to taser a 6-year-old. "At first, the supervisor thought they were joking," says the family's attorney, David Gordon, "but then he told them to go ahead."

One of the cops shot the child in the chest and belly with the sharp Taser barbs, while the other officer caught the boy as he fell. Isaiah vomited from the shock, Gordon says, and was immediately sent to a hospital.

Cops claimed the Taser stopped the boy "from hurting himself." The boy's family sued the county and the school board, settling for roughly $300,000. "The cops were a bunch of idiots," Gordon says. "It turned out to be a very important case... At the time, people were dropping like flies" from taserings.

Shortly after Isaiah was stunned, Miami-Dade cops also tasered a 12-year-old girl who was skipping school. Two weeks later, officers zapped a 16-year-old boy caught driving a stolen car. Larue Stokes Jr., the car thief, accused cops of tasering him while he was handcuffed, but police denied it. "Ever since they got these toys, they don't want to use the skills they were given in law enforcement school," said the teen's father, Larue Stokes Sr.

By the end of 2004 -- barely a year after getting the Tasers -- Miami-Dade Police had reported tasering 253 people. Eighteen of them were minors. These incidents put both the department and the company under scrutiny. In 2005, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced it was investigating Taser International's claim that its weapons could be safely used even on small children. (The investigation was closed without action by the SEC.)

That same year, Miami-Dade Police announced policy changes, which were later echoed by other forces in South Florida. No longer could Tasers be used as "tools of coercion." But officers were still given wide leeway. They could deploy their Tasers to "avoid harm to the officer, subject, or others" and could fire them when suspects became "physically evasive" by doing as little as "tensing or bracing their body." The new rules didn't even ban using Tasers on children.

An opportunity for real reform was lost. It would be nearly a decade before a teenager's death would once again spur anger toward cops and Tasers. By then, thousands of other Miamians would be tasered, many needlessly, some fatally.


North Beach was still shadows and streetlights when Israel "Reefa" Hernandez grabbed his can of Krylon from inside the newspaper box and began what would be his last artwork. As two friends stood lookout, Hernandez unleashed giant waves of gold onto the walls and windows of an abandoned McDonald's.

Then the cops arrived. With officers in tow, Hernandez sprinted southwest, weaving around buildings and jumping over fences. Finally, he bolted north toward what he hoped was escape.

As he rounded the corner, however, two metal prongs buried themselves into his chest. Before he realized what was happening, 50,000 volts coursed like lightning through his body. Then the world went black.

It would never brighten. Hernandez was pronounced dead minutes later. The official cause: a Taser-induced heart attack.

Hernandez's death was a turning point for Tasers in Miami. Young, handsome, and gifted, he has quickly become the face of Taser abuse and, more broadly, police brutality in South Florida. His death -- the first in Florida confirmed to have been caused by a Taser -- has led to protests, marches, "RIP Reefa" murals, a TV documentary, and even a screenplay. What it hasn't led to, however, is a serious examination of the weapon that killed him or police policy for using it. The fact that Tasers can kill an otherwise healthy 18-year-old throws doubt onto how, when, and why these weapons are used.

"Tasers are a pretty good weapon, but the policies are horrible," says Miami attorney David Gordon. "The problem is that it's become the weapon of first resort rather than last resort."

 

South Florida Cops Misuse Tasers, With Deadly Results

For the first time, a New Times investigation puts Hernandez's death into proper context. We pulled more than 2,000 pages of public records, examining eight years of Taser reports from the county's three main police departments -- Miami, Miami-Dade, and Miami Beach. We found the following:

  • These departments reported 3,060 taserings between January 1, 2007, and October 15, 2014. That's an average of more than one per day.
  • Eleven men -- almost all young like Hernandez -- died after being tasered.
  • Miami-Dade Police reported 1,799 taserings and five deaths.
  • Miami Police reported 737 taserings and two deaths.
  • Miami Beach Police reported 584 taserings and one death.
  • Pinecrest, Coral Gables, and Hialeah police each had one death.
  • In 72 of the 102 cases reviewed by New Times, the suspect was unarmed when tasered.
  • In 40 of these cases, charges against the suspect were dropped or never filed.
  • Nine of those tasered were suspected of shoplifting or petty theft.
  • Fourteen of those tasered were homeless.
  • Twenty-one of those tasered were mentally ill.
  • In contrast, Broward Sheriff's Office, South Florida's largest law enforcement agency, has tasered 308 people in the past three years, and at a declining rate.

Miami, Miami-Dade, and Miami Beach police departments defend their use of Tasers.

"We don't overuse Tasers," said Miami Police Sgt. Freddie Cruz. "It is a nonlethal weapon that is used to stabilize a situation if an individual becomes violent, in lieu of getting into a fistfight or using deadly force... It's saved the lives of officers and the community alike."

"Tasers are an effective tool," said Miami-Dade Police Det. Alvaro Zabaleta. "On the street, people have learned to respect it."

Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates refused to comment for this article. In an email, however, he said he had seen "great value in the deployment of Tasers" during his career but that his department's Taser policies were currently under review.

South Florida Cops Misuse Tasers, With Deadly Results

Over the past decade, Florida's crime rate has plummeted to a 43-year low, with the Miami Police Department reporting a 16 percent drop in crime, Miami-Dade noting a 13 percent drop in five years, and Miami Beach echoing that trend. Yet, in all three departments, Taser usage has remained relatively steady. Miami Police reported a 50 percent drop in taserings between 2007 and 2010, but those numbers have since leveled out. Miami-Dade Police actually reported more taserings last year than in 2010.

Meanwhile, the number of fatal shootings by these departments has actually risen. This statistic is troubling because Tasers were introduced with the promise of reducing deadly police-involved shootings, says Justin Mazzola, a researcher for Amnesty International.

South Florida Cops Misuse Tasers, With Deadly Results

"It hasn't really put a dent into when police are using their firearms," he says of national stats that mirror Miami's. "Tasers are being used in a myriad of incidents when normally use of force wouldn't even be necessary."

In a review of more than 100 police reports describing taserings, New Times found police regularly use their Tasers on nonviolent suspects simply for fleeing or "tensing."

On February 11, 2014, Miami Police were looking for an iPhone thief in Overtown. Officer Leighton McClean spotted a man roughly matching the description playing dominoes outside a baby-blue apartment building. Jason Scott had just gotten off work at a local Marriott and was having a beer with his uncle. When cops pulled up, Scott began walking to his car.

According to his report, McClean tried talking to Scott but was ignored. When McClean followed him, the six-foot-three, 315-pound man began "raising his voice and breathing heavily." Scott called McClean a "puss ass." It was then that another cop, Officer Josue Herrera, shot Scott from behind with his Taser. Herrera would later say Scott had clenched his fist and was "posturing for a fight," according to a report.

Reached by New Times, however, Scott says the cops' story is bogus. He was walking to his car to avoid trouble. "One of the police got out of the car and just grabbed me," he says. "He didn't say anything to me."

Scott spent six hours in a holding cell before cops took him to the hospital. When Scott was released the next morning, he took a shower and went straight back to work. He was never charged with the theft, and prosecutors dropped resisting arrest, obstruction of justice, and disorderly conduct charges as well. He barely avoided serious injury, he says. "I missed the concrete on the ground by an inch."

In other cases, Miami Police officers tasered suspects after they resisted arrest for misdemeanors including biking without lights and loitering.

On January 3, 2014, Miami Beach Police tasered a young man for skateboarding. Twenty-three-year-old Thadeus Duval and five friends were filming a music video in the parking lot of Nautilus Middle School after midnight during Christmas break when Officer Steven Cosner arrived in his cruiser. Duval told the cop to leave them alone -- all they were doing was skating. Then he said he lived a block away and began walking home.

The cop pulled out his Taser, pointed it at the skateboarder, and called for backup. Duval obeyed and placed his hands on the cruiser. But when cops tried to handcuff him, he took off running. That's when Cosner hit him with the Taser; Duval collapsed and hit his head on the ground. He was treated by paramedics and then arrested for trespassing and resisting arrest without violence. There was no sign of vandalism or a break-in at the school. Both charges were quickly dropped.

"It was really outrageous," says Adrian Garcia, who was there that night. "The cop acted very aggressively."

Like Miami and Miami Beach officers, Miami-Dade cops at times have used questionable judgment when deploying their Tasers, including one incident involving a baby.

On February 26, 2014, Monicka Pope called the cops to a family barbecue in Homestead. Pope's twin 20-year-old sons, Marquis and Arquis, had been play-fighting when things got out of hand.

Cops arrived to find Marquis locked in his bedroom with his 1-year-old son. When they opened the door, he was lying in bed and hugging the baby. Pope watched police taser her son repeatedly and grabbed her grandson before Marquis hit the ground.

"He wasn't violent at all," Pope says. "I was screaming, 'Don't do it no more! Don't tase him!' But they kept on doing it. I was afraid they was going to hurt them both."

 

South Florida Cops Misuse Tasers, With Deadly Results
Illustration by Joseph Laney

The next day, when Marquis returned home from jail, burned patches of skin on his face, chest, back, and arms fell off, Pope says. All of the charges against her son were eventually dropped.

Records show that South Florida police also regularly taser shoplifters and the homeless.

On Thanksgiving weekend in 2013, Miami Beach Police Officer Enrique Rios spotted a homeless man named Michael Franks on Lincoln Road asking passersby for change. When Rios told him to get lost, Franks told the cop, "Go fuck yourself," and then resisted getting handcuffed. Rios wrote in a report that he "was forced to drive-stun the defendant for approximately three separate cycles in order to gain the defendant's compliance."

This appears to violate MBPD's rules because Franks was neither fleeing nor physically threatening. Instead, he was tasered simply to force him to comply with orders -- a Taser use specifically banned in 2004. (Franks was convicted of panhandling and paid a $50 fine. The resisting arrest charge was dropped.)

Miami Police, meanwhile, have tasered at least a half-dozen homeless men in the past year, mostly for shoplifting food or clothes. On September 16, an officer zapped a homeless man twice for refusing to leave José Martí Park, where he was sleeping. A week later, another MPD officer tasered a homeless man who had wandered into Publix demanding food.

Many other Miamians tasered by police have documented mental problems.

On November 17, 2013, Barbary Canty called cops to report that her 20-year-old niece, Taira Parrish, was acting irrationally. Miami-Dade officers immediately realized Parrish "was obviously unstable mentally and in crisis," according to a report. Parrish proceeded to strip off all of her clothing in front of the officers and refused to be handcuffed.

Cops quickly tasered her. When Parrish shrugged off the electric shock, police tasered her again, in the back. When she tried to walk away once more, they stunned her a third time.

"It was horrible. Before she knew it, they had pulled out their guns and tased her."

A naked, unarmed 20-year-old woman hardly seems like a threat to police. Nor does the officer's description of Parrish "walking" away from police seem physically evasive. Even worse, her family says the girl is deaf and couldn't hear officers' commands.

"It was horrible," Canty says. "Before she knew it, they had pulled out their guns and tased her."

If Parrish isn't a textbook case for why mentally ill suspects need mental health professionals and not Tasers, Bruce Jones is. The 25-year-old Army veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder was committed to Jackson Memorial Hospital after trying to kill himself. When he tried to leave, a Miami-Dade Police officer tasered him in the hospital lobby.

Ethical and procedural questions aside, two other MDPD taserings show that the weapons are often ineffective with mentally ill suspects. In one case, a woman was tasered but still stabbed herself in the chest before being subdued. She survived.

In February 2014, 22-year-old Oscar Paz stood in his Liberty City apartment with a knife to his neck, threatening to kill himself. His mother told cops that his epilepsy medicine had reacted adversely with alcohol. But when Miami-Dade officers tried tasering Paz, the prongs didn't pierce his skin. Instead, "we continued to try and reason with him," one cop wrote. "After some time, we finally were able to disarm him without further incident."

Where a Taser had failed, talking worked.


The most troubling trend revealed by these reports is that Taser-involved deaths are on the rise once again in Miami-Dade. Five men have died after being tasered in the past 16 months. Those killed run the gamut from a massive bodyguard to a rail-thin teenager, but their stories call into question whether Tasers are truly a nonlethal option.

The last time so many people perished in South Florida after being tasered was in late 2007 and 2008. One was a lonely substitute teacher. Another a bartender. A third was an expectant father. Two others had histories of mental problems.

There was a common thread to those earlier deaths: Each man was high on cocaine when he had a meltdown, and each man was then tasered into submission by police, only to stop breathing. Coroners listed cocaine as the cause of death in all five cases. In two of them, they also cited "excited delirium," a controversial syndrome in which drugs, mental disorders, or recent physical activity supposedly cause the body to overheat and shut down.

Over the next three years, Miami-Dade's three major police departments would taser almost 1,200 people without anyone dying. That streak ended on April 12, 2012, when police responded to a strange fight outside an apartment complex in West Miami.

George Salgado was a handsome and easygoing 21-year-old. When cops arrived, however, they found him attacking a stranger. Salgado and his girlfriend, Amanda, had gotten into a loud argument. Then Salgado, stark naked and demanding drugs, had knocked on a neighbor's door.

"My son was tased between 13 and 19 times. He was unarmed and naked."

Salgado launched himself at the neighbor and tore at the old man's clothes. "It was like I was being attacked by a panther, a lion, a tiger," 72-year-old Israel Rodriguez later testified. West Miami police found Salgado jumping on his bed, saying he was God and asking cops for a kiss. When Salgado allegedly moved toward them, two cops tasered him simultaneously.

But the arrest didn't end there. West Miami and Miami-Dade officers combined to taser Salgado around 15 more times. He died 14 hours later. The Miami-Dade coroner ruled the cause of death "excited delirium" but didn't find any drugs in Salgado's system.

"My son was tased between 13 and 19 times," says Salgado's dad, Jorge. "He was unarmed and naked, so how much of a threat could he have been?"

 

South Florida Cops Misuse Tasers, With Deadly Results
Illustration by Joseph Laney

Salgado's death marked the beginning of a new trend of deadly Taser incidents in South Florida. Israel Hernandez was the next and most controversial fatality.

Two friends who were with him the morning he died say Miami Beach cops high-fived after tasering Hernandez, as if celebrating a touchdown. The cop who had used his Taser, Jorge Mercado, was also accused of needlessly tasering and beating an Iraq War veteran and his friend in 2008.

Mercado was briefly suspended with pay after Hernandez's death but returned to active duty days later. Miami Beach Police and prosecutors have repeatedly denied New Times' requests for police reports or Officer Mercado's Taser log, citing an ongoing investigation.

A month later, another attention-grabbing Taser incident occurred. On September 5, 2013, Norman Oosterbroek, a six-foot-three, 280-pound professional bodyguard nicknamed "the Dutch Giant," broke into his neighbor's Pinecrest mansion.

Pinecrest police found Oosterbroek naked, acting erratically, and allegedly gobbling drugs. When the celebrity bodyguard turned his aggression on the officers, they tasered him. Oosterbroek collapsed and was pronounced dead at nearby Baptist Hospital. Police and prosecutors have not released detailed reports on the incident.

Five months later, three other men died in similar circumstances but with much less fanfare. Willie Sams, a baby-faced 21-year-old barber from a tiny town in Georgia, was here visiting family. On February 5, Miami-Dade responded to his relatives' house around 1 a.m. Somehow the call led to cops tasering Sams. He died shortly thereafter. Prosecutors have yet to release more information about that case.

Three weeks later came the deadliest day in Taser's tenure in Miami-Dade. On February 27, two men died in separate incidents involving the weapon. First, backyard boxer Treon Johnson was tasered by Hialeah Police after he threw coconuts from his roof at a dog that had bitten him. Cops have yet to release any information on what happened. But Johnson's family says the 27-year-old went into cardiac arrest after being stunned.

Then, just before midnight, Miami-Dade police arrived at the door of Maykel Antonio Barrera. Only 37, Barrera had already had a brutal life. He had shot himself in the head at age 17, been convicted of manslaughter as a minor, and recently beaten murder charges as an adult. When cops knocked on his door, he was high on cocaine and alpha-PVP.

Barrera slammed the door on the cops and bolted. One of the officers tasered Barrera in the back before he could escape. But as an ambulance took the two cops and their catch to the hospital, Barrera suffered a fatal heart attack. The coroner attributed his death to a drug overdose.

Justin Mazzola from Amnesty International says all the fatal incidents should spur police to reconsider their policies.

"Since it's seen as less than lethal, officers feel they can use it any way they please," he says. "But this is something that, if you don't know who you are tasering, can be deadly."

That's why the proliferation of Tasers across the country terrifies Mazzola. By shocking thousands of people for often minor infractions, Miami's cops are effectively playing the lottery with lives. According to Amnesty International, more than 540 people have died in the United States after being tasered. In at least 61 cases, Tasers were listed as the cause of death or a contributing factor.

"You can't tell by looking at somebody whether or not an electroshock from a Taser is going to cause any negative consequences for them," Mazzola says. "That's why it should only be reserved for those instances in which an officer would rely on his firearm."


As disturbing as the official Taser statistics are, the reality is even worse. Stories like Officer Vincent Miller's tasering of a homeless man in Publix suggest cops are also capable of using these weapons and keeping it off the books.

There's no way to determine how often Miami cops secretly taser people. But what is certain is that the problem is systemic. Officer Miller's superiors failed to monitor his Taser use and, thus, missed the fact that he electrified an unarmed man. Rosengarten's complaint, meanwhile, didn't generate a follow-up investigation.

Officers with bad records use their Tasers most.

What's more, many of the cops who use their Tasers most often also have disconcerting records. One Miami cop with the highest Taser use rate is now under investigation by the FBI, while another killed three people in a little more than a year.

"This is a disgusting epidemic," says Daniel Suarez, a member of the Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), an independent group that investigates abuse claims against MPD, which sustained Rosengarten's complaint. "These officers are getting tremendous leeway to use their weapons. Some officers have itchy trigger fingers and are abusing people."

Rosengarten, now a clerk for a federal judge, declined to speak to New Times about what he saw in Publix that day. But the complaint he filed and the lack of response it inspired paint a clear picture of the lack of accountability in Taser use.

Rosengarten filed his first complaint three days after the incident. For a month he heard nothing. Unbeknownst to him, the Miami PD's internal affairs section had decided to file the case as "information only," meaning there would be no investigation.

Finally, on December 17, 2013, Rosengarten sent another letter, this time to the CIP. A month later the complaint was emailed to George Wysong, legal adviser for MPD, and three days later the CIP opened its own investigation.

It didn't take CIP investigator Elisabeth Albert long to substantiate Rosengarten's complaints. When she pulled Miller's file, she saw a photo of a six-foot-one policeman with a pencil-thin mustache. She also saw a veteran officer with 12 reported Taser uses and six complaints in 20 years.

Many of Miller's taserings were worrying. Five times Miller had tasered homeless or poor people for shoplifting. On May 24, 2011, for instance, he shocked a man who had walked into a Target barefoot and then refused to take off the $19.99 Pro Spirit sneakers he had put on. On January 30, 2013, Miller confronted Zacharia Brown, a 31-year-old stealing ravioli and vitamins from the Publix on Biscayne Boulevard at 18th Street. When Brown fled, Miller chased him and shot him in the back with his Taser.

 

After his arrest, Brown broke down and apologized. "He did it because he became homeless two days ago and was starving," Miller's supervisor wrote in his report. "He found himself sleeping in the cemetery and was desperate for food."

Eleven months later, Miller tasered Noel Patrick, another homeless man, for trying to smuggle whiskey out of Publix, causing him to fall and hit his face on the ground. Then he tasered him again.

What Albert didn't find in Miller's file, however, was any report explaining the November 15 tasering that Rosengarten had described. Miller had made only one off-duty arrest that day, six hours after the Publix incident. But when Albert requested the log book for Miller's weapon, she found a match. The Taser's records -- which are automatically stored on chips in each device -- showed Miller's weapon was armed at 4:19 p.m. November 15 and used four times within one minute and 41 seconds.

"These times are consistent with the time provided by the complainant," Albert concluded. Albert recommended that the panel sustain allegations of abusive treatment and improper procedure against Miller for violating six departmental orders. An independent attorney agreed with the ruling, and when Miller refused to speak in his defense, the CIP sustained the charges.

Since then, however, little has happened. Miami Police internal affairs has opened its own case on the incident. "Any allegation of misconduct or improper procedure will be investigated," said Sgt. Freddie Cruz, adding that allegations of Taser abuse were "very uncommon."

Nevertheless, the case exposes failures on multiple levels. Police rules require supervisors to check officers' Taser logs and investigate "undocumented charges." This never happened. MPD rules also require tasered suspects to be checked for adverse reactions so they can receive medical care. Instead, the homeless man was dumped onto the street.

Rosengarten's complaint may not have been Miller's only case where he used a Taser without reporting it. His Taser log shows activity on more than a dozen other days that do not correspond to reported uses of force.

The same is true for other MPD officers whose files New Times reviewed. Without a witness like Rosengarten, however, it is impossible to tell whether these are instances of unreported tasering or simply records of officers testing their Tasers.

Miller might not even be the most troubled, Taser-happy cop in his department. Last year, Miller reported firing his weapon twice (although he was on military leave for most of the year). Seventy-six other MPD officers reported using their Tasers in 2013 -- 13 of them more than once. The top six officers used their Tasers a total of 20 times combined.

Their files raise red flags. Three of the cops who used their Tasers most frequently were rookies. Alexander Avila and Juan G. Santos each used their Taser four times in 2013. Daniel Mogro used his weapon thrice. All three officers were only hired in 2012.

Two other Miami officers with heavy Taser use have worrying records. George Diaz has reported using his Taser ten times in a decade-long career, including three times last year and twice in 2014. With his handgun, Diaz has also killed three men, one of them during a hotly contested incident that the officer refused to explain to prosecutors.

On July 7, 2009, Diaz fatally shot Celso Marrero Rebuelta after the 51-year-old reportedly refused to drop two knives during a standoff in Wynwood.

Four months later, Diaz was one of two cops involved in the controversial killing of Corey McNeal. McNeal was walking through Wynwood November 14, 2009, when he was stopped by Officers Diaz and Omar Ayala. The two cops never radioed in the incident. Moments later, McNeal had been shot 27 times. A box cutter and a wad of cash were found near his body. Diaz and Ayala refused to talk to prosecutors about what had happened. Without any testimony, the State Attorney's Office closed the case.

Nine months later, Diaz was one of five Miami Police officers to fatally wound Gibson Belizaire during a Liberty City shootout. Finally, on July 18, 2011, Diaz fired his gun once more, although the details of that shooting are unclear.

Then there's Officer Artice Peoples. Hired in 2008, Peoples used his Taser three times last year and once in 2014.

Tasers have nothing to do with the hot water he's in, however. Peoples is one of three cops suspended in December for allegedly taking kickbacks from pirate tow companies in a scheme that sparked an FBI probe.

Taser International says it does everything possible to prevent abuse of its stun guns. "Any misuse of force is a concern," says spokesman Steve Tuttle, "which is one reason we built so much accountability into our Taser weapons."


Something is happening on NW 36th Street in midtown Miami. It's rush hour on a Friday evening, but traffic near the corner of First Avenue isn't as bad as usual. It's apocalyptic. Drivers are turning off their engines. Some are even climbing out to see what's causing the chaos. In the distance, they spot banners waving like bizarre battle flags. "Injustice," they read. "Brutality."

Beneath the banners, Offir Hernandez stands at the center of a sea of protesters. Israel's younger sister is pretty, with a bright smile and a pixie haircut, but tonight she is the angry eye of a growing storm.

"Every day the police officers decide who lives and who dies," she screams into a bullhorn. "Enough is enough!"

Clouds crack open overhead. The protesters march through the rain toward Interstate 195. For the next hour, they block the six-lane highway full of motorists stuck on their way to Art Basel events. Some demonstrators carry posters of Israel Hernandez. Others hold placards demanding "#Justice4Reefa."

"[Cops] make mistakes. And when they make mistakes, they should be held accountable."

Hernandez's death illustrates the true impact of Taser abuse: His killing not only deepened distrust of police but also put Miami Beach taxpayers on the hook for a potentially huge settlement.

 

But at the same time, the community's reaction could finally push police and politicians to rein in use of the weapon. "Our fight is for justice," says Hernandez's mother, Jacqueline Llach. "[Cops] aren't gods. They are human beings just like us, and they make mistakes. And when they make mistakes, they should be held accountable."

Hernandez's family has led the push to change Taser policy, beginning with a lawsuit that accuses Miami Beach Police of "unnecessary, excessive, and unconstitutional force."

"My son wasn't armed," Llach says. "He had already surrendered. There was no reason to use a Taser."

Her point is echoed by many civil rights organizations. Amnesty International has called for nationwide rules restricting Tasers to situations in which cops would otherwise use deadly force. The American Civil Liberties Union has also called for national regulations limiting Taser use to "life-threatening situations."

"The first question [in fatal police incidents]... is whether or not the officers were following the correct policies," says Baylor Johnson, an ACLU spokesman. "If the answer is no, those officers have to be held accountable. And if the answer is yes, then those policies have to be reviewed so that the public is protected from future incidents."

So far, however, South Florida cops have resisted calls for cutting back on Taser use. Under pressure from protesters and politicians after Hernandez's death, the Miami Beach Police Department commissioned an external audit of its policies, including Taser use. The audit recommended calling Tasers "less lethal" rather than "nonlethal" and limiting some uses of the weapons. But the department has yet to codify those minimal reforms.

One recommendation MBPD has followed is to use body cameras. The department began a pilot program this past October and could fully equip its officers in 2015. Fifty cops from the Miami Police Department are also testing cameras in a pilot program, and MDPD has also announced plans to try out the technology.

"We'd be naive to think that body cameras are going to be a panacea," Johnson says. "But they are an important step and have been proven to work."

Jacqueline Llach agrees but also has doubts. After all, the cameras are made by the same company that manufactures the weapon that killed her son: Taser International. "They are going to reap more benefits," she says of the company. "How much money has Taser already made off of these machines?"

Taser International declined to comment on Hernandez's case but says it is "always concerned when a death tragically occurs in custody." The company also denied any blame in instances of Taser abuse. "Taser does not determine when a Taser weapon is used, as this is determined by use of force policies set forth by law enforcement agencies," Tuttle says. He warns that limiting Taser use to life-threatening situations "will endanger officers and suspects alike to more injuries by going back to the Stone Age with baton strikes and K-9s."

In the meantime, taxpayers are on the hook for Taser misuse. The Hernandez family hasn't been the only one to sue. Jorge and Barbara Salgado, whose son George was tasered by cops ten to 20 times before dying in April 2012, sued Miami-Dade County, the City of West Miami, four cops, and -- in a rare move -- Taser International. (The Salgados eventually dropped their complaint against Taser because "the facts demonstrated excessive use of force," according to attorney Keith Pierro. The family has settled with Miami-Dade and is still pursuing its suit against West Miami.)

It's unclear how much money local taxpayers have shelled out over the decades because of Taser-related settlements, but it's likely in the millions, says Gordon, the attorney who represented the family of the 6-year-old tasered in 2004.

There is another, even bigger cost to Taser abuse. Each cop questionably using a Taser further poisons the well of community trust at a time when police brutality is making national headlines. "Taser abuse damages the community's trust in law enforcement," says Amnesty International's Mazzola.

Secret police taserings -- like the incident at Publix -- could shatter that already shaky trust, the ACLU's Johnson says. "It's obviously very disturbing to hear that police officers are using these weapons and then not reporting to their supervisors."

In cases like Miller's, the solution is simple: better supervision. MPD needs to actually do what it already says it does -- check officers' electronic Taser logs for evidence of unauthorized and unreported use.

Llach knows that no reforms will bring back her son, but she says any progress would be better than nothing. On a recent weekday, she sits on a couch in a small Aventura apartment where her family has retreated since Israel's death. Next to her is Offir. Stirring nearby, Israel's grandmother wipes tears with wrinkled hands. Three generations of a family torn apart by a Taser.

"There isn't a day that goes by that the scene of my son's death doesn't flash through my head," Llach says. "And I ask myself: 'Why did that cop tase my son? Why? Why did he do it?'

"Israel should be here next to me," she says. "It was needless. Needless."




Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >