Police officers used excessive force in separate instances when they were caught on video kicking suspects in the head, a civilian panel tasked with watching over Miami police determined this week.
But only one of the officers has been disciplined by the police department and prosecutors for the kick. The difference, according to Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel: The officer who was suspended and charged with a crime was caught kicking at a suspected car thief’s head on cellphone video recorded by a civilian.
In the other case, an internal review found no wrongdoing despite clear video of the officer twice using the heel of his shoe to stomp on the head of a female teenaged armed robbery suspect while she was lying on the ground. But video of that incident only came to light several months after the incident when a virtual policing unit retrieved it for trial and became alarmed enough to pass it along to supervisors.
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The difference in how police responded to the cases, some CIP members concluded, shows what a powerful tool bystander cellphone videos have become in capturing the actions of officers — actions that in the past were rarely seen by the public.
Elisabeth Albert, a CIP investigator with two decades of policing experience, told panel members the bodycam video would never have been discovered if not for the action of the virtual policing unit. Unlike how Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office dealt with the highly publicized cellphone video, the bodycam footage was passed back to the police department and treated as an in-house administrative matter.
“It was handled differently without the video out there,” Albert said.
The first incident involved the May 3 arrest of David Suazo, 31, who eventually pleaded guilty and agreed to 30 months in prison for grand theft auto, reckless driving, driving with a suspended license and fleeing from police. According to police and investigators from the CIP, police were watching Suazo’s home when he emerged and started driving a 2000 Jeep Cherokee that had been reported stolen in Broward County.
Police said they followed Suazo to Overtown and when they turned on their sirens he sped up toward the Culmer Apartments, crashed the vehicle into a wall and fled on foot. Police bodycam footage captured some officers, who couldn’t leap a spiked mental fence in a courtyard to get to Suazo, running through apartments.
At one point, officer Mario Figueroa confronted Suazo through the fence and fired his Taser, which had no effect. Then, after another officer subdued Suazo on the grass — lying on his stomach, his hands cuffed behind his back — Figueroa is seen racing towards him and delivering a running kick to the suspect’s head. Suazo appears to move his head in the video and Figueroa’s kick appears to miss its target.
Despite at least three officers wearing body cameras, none of them captured the kick. Figueroa claimed his camera fell off his uniform as he was running toward Suazo. The video, taken by a former Florida International University student who lives in the complex, received substantial play after she posted it on her Facebook page and sent a copy to Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina.
Colina immediately declared that the video “depicts a clear violation of policy” and suspended the two-year cop with pay pending the outcome of an investigation. Five days later, state prosecutors, who have rarely filed criminal cases against officers, charged Figueroa with assault. Figueroa said he thought the officer was struggling to subdue Suazo and was going to kick him to get him to comply, but changed direction of the kick in mid-stream when he realized Suazo was not resisting.
“What he did land was intent. The intent to me does way more damage,” said CIP member Courtney Omega. The board voted unanimously that Figueroa used excessive force.
The second incident was more contentious for CIP members, with some arguing that the officer had the right to fear for his life when he saw a dark object fly by while trying to subdue a woman suspected of armed robbery. That object turned out to be her blue flip-flop.
It was February of 2017 when police received a call saying an armed man had stolen a woman’s purse from her car at Northwest Seventh Avenue and 71st Street and then fled in a car. Police spotted the car and gave chase. It eventually crashed in Miami Shores at Northwest Second Court and 94th Street. The driver bailed and jumped a fence. But when police found a teenaged girl who had been in the car behind a patrol car, they began chasing her.
Bodycam video worn by one officer shows another officer taking the girl, known only as TJ, to the ground, then losing control of her and rolling away. That’s when Miami police officer John Askew is spotted running toward the girl with what appears to be a Taser in one hand and a radio in the other. With TJ on the ground, Askew, twice stomps on her head with the heel of his right shoe.
“Move again, I dare you,” he’s heard saying while handcuffing her.
When the video is slowed, the dark object turned out to be her flip-flop flying in the air as Askew approaches her. There was no mention of the object initially by Askew in his report. But several months later, after viewing it prior to his internal affairs investigation, the officer claimed he feared it was the weapon used in the crime. State prosecutors who viewed the video passed it back to police, saying the issue should be dealt with administratively. Police found no wrongdoing with Askew’s actions.
He was eventually suspended a week without pay but for not filling out a use-of-force memo, which is required any time an officer uses force. Askew told internal affairs investigators he didn’t consider the episode to be a use-of-force.
Some CIP members — who are appointed by city commissioners, the mayor and police chief — said despite no known police training that involves kicking, anything goes in hand-to-hand combat, especially when police fear a suspect still has control of a weapon used in a crime.
CIP member Stephen Navarrete said he watched the video two dozen times and broke it down frame-by-frame. He said Askew only saw her behind the patrol car at the last moment and had the right to use force to subdue her, especially because he didn’t know where the weapon was and he saw a dark object fly past. The gun was eventually found in the backseat of the car that the supects crashed.
“It looked bad. It looked ugly. But when she went down there was no control of her. He used his feet to control her. He thought she may have had the gun,” Navarrete said. “But before you vote tonight I think it’s important to remember this was an armed robbery. Anybody can pull a trigger.”
Other members, though, weren’t buying Navarrete’s narrative.
“This is like setting community policing back 30 years,” said panel member Deidria Davis.
Offered Minca Brantely: “It’s pretty obvious, you don’t kick people in the head. I teach that to my 7-year-old.”
The state eventually dropped all charges against TJ. The CIP panel voted 8-3, saying Askew used excessive force. Navarrete, Alvaro Puente and Noel Rojas were in the minority.
Now, CIP Executive Director Cristina Beamud will pen a letter to Colina arguing Askew should be disciplined for the kicks. Colina is not likely to do much. His office already said nothing will be done unless the panel finds new evidence that internal affairs hasn’t already taken into consideration.
The panel also voted to let Colina know that the video of the Miami officer driving over a grassy swale and a sidewalk and of Askew kicking the suspect should be used as a training video for Miami police — on how not to take a suspect into custody.