NORTH MIAMI, Fla. (AP) — The North Miami police officer who shot and wounded an unarmed black mental health worker earlier this week was actually aiming at the man’s autistic patient and trying to protect the worker, the head of Miami-Dade County’s police union said.
John Rivera, who runs the Miami Police Benevolent Association, told reporters Thursday that the officer, who has not been identified by name, is a decorated four-year veteran of the police force and a member of the SWAT team. The police department said on its Facebook page Thursday evening that the officer is a 30-year-old Hispanic. Earlier in the day, Chief Gary Eugene said the agency will be transparent as the investigation unfolds.
The admission by Rivera and the officer was intended to help calm the fears of the nation following a rash of police shootings, and sometimes killings, of black men. Rivera said the officer fired three times and hit 47-year-old Charles Kinsey in the leg.
Kinsey, who was trying to coax the 27-year-old autistic man back to a group home he’d run away from, is recovering from his injuries.
Monday’s shooting comes amid weeks of violence involving police.
Five officers were killed in Dallas two weeks ago and three law enforcement officers were gunned down Sunday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Before those shootings, a black man, Alton Sterling, 37, was fatally shot during a scuffle with two white officers at a convenience store there. In Minnesota, 32-year-old Philando Castile, who was also black, was shot to death during a traffic stop. Cellphone videos captured Sterling’s killing and the aftermath of Castile’s shooting, prompting nationwide protests over the treatment of blacks by police.
Thomas Matthews said Thursday that when he noticed North Miami police officers responding to a commotion a block from his usual outdoor sitting spot Monday, he grabbed his binoculars and saw a middle-aged black man and a younger autistic man sitting in an intersection.
The officers, he said, grabbed rifles from the patrol cars’ trunks and crept toward the men. The autistic man was holding something in his hand. Peering through his binoculars, he could see the object was a toy truck. Matthews says he tried to tell an officer who had stayed behind for crowd control, but she told him to back up.
Soon, three shots rang out and therapist Kinsey was injured. The shooting drew national attention because much of what happened before the shooting was captured on video.
“If she would have told the other officers, maybe they wouldn’t have shot,” said Matthews, a 73-year-old African-American. He ran a North Miami flower shop before retiring and has lived in the area for years. He said he has never had a problem with North Miami police.
“But I guess with all the shootings that are going on, they are nervous and shook up,” Matthews said.
At a news conference Thursday, Chief Eugene said the investigation has been turned over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the state attorney’s office. He called it a “very sensitive matter” and promised a transparent investigation, but refused to identify the officer or answer reporters’ questions. Eugene, a Haitian-American with 30 years of South Florida police experience, just became chief last week.
“I realize there are many questions about what happened on Monday night. You have questions, the community has questions, we as a city, we as a member of this police department and I also have questions,” he said. “I assure you we will get all the answers.”
During a Thursday news conference, Rivera, said the officer believed Kinsey’s patient was armed, and the officer was trying to shoot the patient in an attempt to save Kinsey’s life.
Nancy Abudu, the American Civil Liberties Union’s legal director in Florida, said her group hasn’t received any brutality complaints about the North Miami police or about any questionable shootings before this week’s.
Kinsey’s attorney, Hilton Napoleon II, said he is already talking to North Miami city officials about a monetary settlement for his client, who is married with five children. City officials did not return a phone call seeking confirmation.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told reporters the Justice Department is aware of the shooting and working with local law enforcement to gather all of the facts and to decide how to proceed.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, who represents the area, said she was in shock.
“From what I saw, he was lying on the ground with his hands up. Freezing. But he was still shot,” said Wilson, a Democrat.
“This is not typical of North Miami,” she said. “We’re not accustomed to this tension. … This cannot happen again.”
The chief said officers responded after getting a 911 call about a man with a gun threatening to kill himself, and the officers arrived “with that threat in mind” — but no gun was recovered.
Cellphone video shows Kinsey lying on the ground with his arms raised, talking to his patient and police throughout the standoff with officers, who appeared to have them surrounded.
“As long as I’ve got my hands up, they’re not going to shoot me. This is what I’m thinking. They’re not going to shoot me,” he told WSVN-TV (http://bit.ly/2ac7zm1) from his hospital bed, where he was recovering from a gunshot wound to his leg. “Wow, was I wrong.”
The video does not show the moment of the shooting. Napoleon said there was about a two-minute gap in which the person who was recording had switched off, thinking nothing more noteworthy would happen. It then briefly shows the aftermath of the shooting. He would not say who gave him the video.
“Lay down on your stomach,” Kinsey says to his patient in the video, which was shot from about 30 feet away and provided to the Miami Herald (http://hrld.us/2ahReMa). “Shut up!” responds the patient, who is sitting cross-legged in the road.
Kinsey said he was more worried about his patient than himself.
“I’m telling them again, ‘Sir, there is no need for firearms. I’m unarmed, he’s an autistic guy. He got a toy truck in his hand,” Kinsey said.
After the shooting, Napoleon said officers handcuffed Kinsey and left him lying in the street on his stomach for 20 minutes without rendering first aid.
Kinsey said he asked an officer why he was shot and the officer said “I don’t know.”