By Marianela Toledo | Florida Watchdog
MIAMI — Police saw Israel Hernandez-Llach painting graffiti on an abandoned restaurant the morning of Aug. 6.
UNDER INVESTIGATION: Israel ‘Reefa’ Hernandez was a young graffiti artist when was shot by a taser and an hour late pass away.
Hernandez — often called “Reefa” — was unarmed. He ran from police.
A seven-minute chase involving a half-dozen officers ensued, ending when one of the officers shot Hernandez in the chest with a Taser, an electric stun gun. Hernandez was later pronounced dead at Mount Sinai hospital. He was 18.
Now, his family wants justice.
Jorge Estomba, a member of the organization Justice for Reefa, spoke on behalf of the Hernandez family. He doesn’t understand why the officer, Jorge Mercado, wasn’t charged.
Robert Hernandez, Miami Beach Police Department public information officer, told Florida Watchdog Mercado is assigned to the Criminal Investigations Unit.
Estomba, other JFR members and friends of the young grafitti artist protested in front of the Miami prosecutor’s office a few weeks ago, after learning the official cause of death was accidental electrical shock that caused “sudden heart failure” and that “no traces of drugs were found in his body,” according to Estomba, citing the medical examiner’s report.
Estomba said the use of excessive force was “not accidental” and was instead “premeditated.”
The family has filed a civil lawsuit against the police department and former Miami Beach Police Chief Ray Martinez, as well as Mercado. The lawsuit alleges police used excessive force and later failed to provide proper medical attention.
Robert Hernandez, the police spokesman, told FloridaWatchdog.org he couldn’t comment on an active investigation.
In August, Martinez told CBS the officer used a Taser because Hernandez resisted arrest and didn’t stop running after being ordered to so.
GRAFFITI ARTIST: Israel Hernandez was an award winner artist, when he was discovered by Officer Jorge Mercado, painting an empty in North Miami Beach.
Estomba, in part, blames Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami-Dade County state attorney the past 12 years. She has fostered a culture that gives police impunity to act out, he said.
“They are free to do whatever they want” and are “a privileged class,” Estomba said.
He said it’s Rundle’s responsibility to create procedures and protocols to protect people’s basic civil rights.
While the forensic examination was a key part of the ongoing investigation, it was not a decisive one, the Miami-Dade prosecutor’s office said in a written statement. It will base its decision on all of the facts, including police reports.
But the law may be on the side of police. Florida statutes allow officers to use Taser-like weapons if a subject “is preparing or attempting to flee or escape.”
“Under Florida law, police have the right to close all files related to the investigation of the case” while the investigation is in progress, said John de Leon, a Miami lawyer and civil rights expert.
This makes it hard for families to sue because they can’t get crucial evidence.
Barbara Petersen, president of First Amendment Foundation, based in Tallahassee, said Florida carries a presumption of openness, “which means that we presume that all records, including law enforcement records, are public records and therefore subject to disclosure under our public records law.”
If an agency, in this case a criminal justice agency, denies a request to inspect or copy public records, the agency is legally required to provide the requestor with the statutory citation authorizing the denial and state why the agency thinks it applies to the records requested, she said. Only the Legislature can create exemptions to the public records law, so there’s no balancing of interests by an agency.
“As for law enforcement, there are a number of exemptions, but most of them are fairly narrow,” Petersen said.
The “Peace Officers Bill of Rights” provides considerable protections for police and limits information the public can learn about their respective backgrounds. Time also is a problem. It took more than six months to get the medical examiner’s report in Hernandez case.
Howard Simon, executive director of Florida’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while the Hernandez case is “tragic,” unfortunately, “Miami Beach police have a troubling history of excessive force and lack of transparency after such incidents.” Based on the medical examiner’s report — as well as other cases of extreme use of force with Tasers — the ACLU has called for a change in police policy and a full investigation.
“Given the harmful and fatal medical consequences of electroshock weapons, all police departments in South Florida need to reform their policies on the use of the weapon and provide additional training to reduce ‘accidental deaths’ due to its use,” Simon said.
Families and friends of victims who died because of the electric guns, including Willie Sams and Maykel Antonio Barrera, deserve a full investigation into the causes and circumstances of their deaths, proponents say.
On Feb. 5, police responding to a call about a domestic dispute shot Sams, 21, with a stun gun. Sams, from a small town in northwest Georgia, was visiting his grandmother in the Liberty City neighborhood when he got into a confrontation with police just before 1 a.m.
An hour later, doctors at Northshore Medical Center pronounced Sams dead.
On Feb. 27, according to The Miami Herald, police say Barrera fought with them at the front door of a South Miami-Dade home, before running off. An officer was hurt, police chased Barrera and shot him with the stun gun. Barerra died in a nearby hospital.
At least 500 people in the United States have died since 2001 after being shocked with Taser-like guns, either during their arrest or while in jail, according to a 2012 report by Amnesty International.
In California, 92 died after being shot with the guns; Florida had 65 deaths, Texas 37.
Contact Marianela Toledo at Marianela.Toledo@FloridaWatchdog.org or on Twitter @mtoledoreporter