Two years after 116 police bullets flew, few answers in Miami Beach killing

New York TimesNews ServiceAugust 4, 2013 

MIAMI BEACH -- The last 90 seconds of Raymond Herisse's life unfold on YouTube with chilling clarity.

The car Herisse, 22, is driving rolls down a South Beach street. Shots are heard in the distance as Hialeah police officers try to stop the car. About two blocks later, the car slows to a stop, standing idle for more than minute. Eight Miami Beach police officers cluster near the driver's side. Then they unleash a barrage of more than 100 bullets, a volley so startling that the hands of the person recording the scene from his cellphone shake.

In all, 16 bullets hit Herisse, who was killed sitting behind the wheel. Four bystanders were wounded -- two men and two women, part of a large crowd gathered May 30, 2011, for the final day of Urban Beach Week, a raucous, yearly hip-hop and rap event in South Beach.

But in the two years since Herisse's death, his family and the four other victims, increasingly troubled by delays and the police's handling of the investigation, are still waiting to learn why the officers opened fire on a stopped car amid a throng of onlookers.

"I was outraged," said Charline Herisse, 27, Herisse's sister and a teacher in Boston. "Because in my head I was thinking, 'How could this be possible?' It felt so unreal, almost like a movie."

Justice moves slowly

It took the Miami Beach police two years to wrap up their investigation. In late May, the case was turned over to the Miami-Dade County state attorney, Katherine Fernandez-Rundle. She will decide whether the 12 officers -- eight from Miami Beach and four from Hialeah who fired the initial shots -- used excessive force, a process that could still take months. The officers have not yet provided statements to prosecutors, said Sgt. Bobby Hernandez, the public information officer for the Miami Beach Police Department.

The police have said Herisse, a Boynton Beach resident, was driving recklessly for several blocks, nearly hitting several police officers and posing a danger to pedestrians. He was legally drunk, toxicology reports show. He had been arrested 13 times since 2007, once for stealing a car but mostly for drugs, traffic violations and missed court dates. Marwan E. Porter, the Herisse family lawyer, said that was irrelevant to the shooting because he had no outstanding warrants.

During the investigation, Miami Beach police officers were faulted by the victims' lawyers and civil libertarians for their treatment of witnesses and their handling of evidence, including a gun that was found under a towel beneath the driver's seat. It took officers three days to obtain a warrant, search the car and find the gun, which opened the department to skepticism about how it got there. Lab reports showed that Herisse did not fire the gun before the shooting.

Wrongful death charged

"His mother, his sister, for them to have no closure whatsoever is reprehensible," said Porter, who has filed a wrongful death suit against the Miami Beach and Hialeah police departments. "They have to justify 116 bullets shot into a crowd of hundreds of people. And that's a problem. That is so reckless. They also shot four innocent people, who luckily are alive but could be dead."

Obtaining information from the city of Miami Beach and its police department has proved difficult for the victims and Herisse's family. They say they were forced to sue to obtain information to which they are entitled under the law. Meanwhile, the four bystanders who suffered serious injuries have not yet been classified as victims -- barring them from access to a general fund for victims. They face substantial medical bills.

One victim still has a bullet lodged near his heart; doctors decided not to remove it. Another was shot in the hip and required reconstructive surgery. A third victim was shot in the arm and leg and suffered a nervous breakdown. The fourth person was shot in the arm.

In June, a Miami-Dade County judge ordered the release of some of the information -- autopsy reports, photographs and the police radio chatter. But Miami Beach city attorneys failed to abide by the court order, prompting the judge to chastise them, calling their behavior "darn right insultful to the court," and ordering the city to pay legal costs.

Departments under fire

The shooting and subsequent investigation come at a time of increased scrutiny of Miami-Dade County police departments. Last month, the Department of Justice found that several Miami Police Department shootings were unjustified. A federal judge will monitor the force as it carries out changes.

The Miami Beach Police Department also has faced criticism. The police chief at the time, Carlos Noriega, retired at the end of 2011. During his tenure, an officer was fired for taking a woman on a joy ride on his all-terrain vehicle while drunk and running over two tourists on the beach. Two others were fired for arresting and abusing a gay man. And one officer shot two people in four days, resigned and was later convicted of running a marijuana growing operation.

A new police chief, Raymond A. Martinez, took the job last year.

Miami Beach police officials are also frustrated, given that they cannot fully present their version of events because of the pending investigation, Hernandez said.

Hernandez said the YouTube video showed only the shooting with no context. Urban Beach Week has long posed a challenge to officers, who say they receive a high volume of calls. This has led to a large police presence and it is often a tense assignment.

Hernandez said it was not surprising that the inquiry took two years; police shootings take a long time to investigate, he said. This case was particularly complex, he added: It involved 12 officers from two departments, a crime scene that spanned four blocks and 116 bullets that had to be accounted for.

The broad brush strokes of the case -- culled from police statements after the shooting, recently released documents, police radio audio and the YouTube video -- paint a chaotic scene.

'Shots fired'

Shortly before 4 a.m., police radio reports streamed in of a "fleeing" vehicle traveling at "a high rate of speed" down Collins Avenue. The police later said the driver was on the wrong side of the road, endangering pedestrians and almost slamming into several officers on bike patrol. One officer was injured, the police said.

A police officer tried to stop the fleeing Hyundai. When it continued, four Hialeah officers fired shots toward it. "Shots fired. Shots fired," officers are heard saying over the radio. But nobody said anything about who fired the shots, leaving officers to guess.

As the car traveled another two blocks down Collins Avenue, eight Miami Beach officers saw it coming toward them, which is when the YouTube video starts.

Nobody has yet explained what triggered the barrage of gunfire a full minute after the car stopped.

"He fled from four other officers, and one is hurt," said Alex Bello, the president of the Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police. "Whether he put his hands underneath the seat to grab his gun or not, the officers all saw something."

If there is a threat, he said: "We don't try to shoot them in the knee. We shoot to stop the threat."

But Bradley Winston, a lawyer whose client, Sarah Garcia, was shot twice, sees it differently. "The police response was so disproportionate," he said. "It's the dictionary definition of overkill."

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