MIAMI — The North Miami police officer who shot an unarmed, black mental health worker caring for a patient actually took aim at the autistic man next to him, but missed, the head of the police union said Thursday.
It was a stunning admission from the police officer and from John Rivera, who heads Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association. But it was one meant to calm the fears of a nation besieged with cellphone videos of police shooting and sometimes killing unarmed black men.
In this case, Rivera said, the officer ended up wounding the man he was trying to save.
“I couldn’t allow this to continue for the community’s sake,” Rivera said Thursday during a hastily called news conference at the union’s Doral office. “Folks, this is not what the rest of the nation is going through.”
North Miami police and investigators have been tight-lipped since the Monday shooting, even as video of most of the encounter has been released. The story gained international attention and public pressure for answers mounted.
Earlier Thursday, North Miami Police Chief Gary Eugene spoke briefly for the first time, but said little other than that no weapon had been found and that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had taken over the investigation.
The chief didn’t take any questions and refused to name the officer. The city said he is a 30-year-old Hispanic male who has been on the force for four years. As Eugene was leaving the podium, he refused to answer even more questions.
Rivera called the officer who shot Charles Kinsey “decorated” and said he was a member of city’s SWAT team. The name of the autistic man hasn’t been released. He appears to be a white Hispanic on the video.
On Monday, a North Miami police officer shot Kinsey, 47, after, police said, the officer mistakenly believed that Kinsey was going to be killed by the 23-year-old autistic man playing with a toy truck who was sitting on the ground next to him. Rivera said the officer feared the autistic man had a weapon.
Police raced to Northeast 127th Street and 14th Avenue after receiving a 911 call saying there was a man in the roadway with a gun who was going to kill himself. When they got there, they found the man sitting on the ground with his truck and Kinsey, who was trying to coax the man back inside the nearby mental health center, MacTown Panther Group Home.
When police barked orders for the two to lie down with their hands up, Kinsey complied.
“Mr. Kinsey did everything right,” Rivera said.
The autistic man ignored the orders of police yelling for the men to lie down. Some of the officers were behind poles on the street. Others were behind their patrol vehicles.
Then, while Kinsey was lying supine with his hands in the air and the autistic man sat beside him, an officer fired three rounds from an assault rifle, according to North Miami police. One bullet found a target — Kinsey.
He was shot in the leg and transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he continues to recover. Kinsey is expected to be released this week.
According to a law-enforcement source, the officer who shot Kinsey was taking cover behind a squad car and fired from at least 50 yards away. He shot after another officer, in a radio transmission, suggested the autistic man was loading his weapon, which turned out to be the toy truck, the source said.
In interviews, Kinsey said he repeatedly told police while he was lying on the ground that there was no weapon and not to shoot. Rivera said North Miami police couldn’t hear his cries. The union president didn’t know how far the police were from Kinsey.
Most of the confrontation was captured on a cellphone camera and the video has caused a buzz around the world. It was released to the Miami Herald by Kinsey’s attorney Hilton Napoleon.
Calls and texts to Napoleon were not returned Thursday. The attorney didn’t say if portions of the video were edited out. It doesn’t appear to show the actual shooting.
On Wednesday, only two days after the shooting, Napoleon said he was already in settlement discussions with North Miami’s manager.
The shooting took place about a block from the MacTown Panther Group Home. It’s a slightly run-down home with a hibiscus hedge, a blue basketball hoop and a weed-filled planter.
At one point Thursday a blue minivan filled with special-needs folks pulled up and workers escorted them by hand into the home. Neighbors say it’s not uncommon for adults to go on walks around the neighborhood, often in groups and always with a caretaker.
Kinsey was shot just around the corner from the home, in front of an electrical grid station. Calls to MacTown President and CEO Clint Bower were not returned Thursday.
The shooting of Kinsey and the video that accompanied the stories caused an uproar. Thursday night about 40 Black Lives Matter protesters stormed into the North Miami Police Department demanding that the officer who shot Kinsey be fired.
Earlier in the day, Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens visited North Miami Thursday and made a brief statement saying, “We’re all in shock today,” and calling for officers to be trained in dealing with autism and mental health issues.
Rivera said it wasn’t clear Thursday if the officer who fired his weapon had undergone Crisis Intervention Training. The session is required in many departments when an officer joins and is urged as a refresher in ensuing years. It is not required in North Miami.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said her office would wait for the findings of the FDLE investigation before determining if the officer should face criminal charges.
Despite Rivera’s admission, firearms experts and civil liberties groups expressed dismay at the shooting, mostly laying the blame on improper training and poor decision-making.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida called for North Miami police to review its use-of-force policies and how it equips officers in dealing with autistic and mentally ill people.
In his statement, ACLU Executive Director Howard Simon cited the recent shooting deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Vernell Bing in Jacksonville, Fla. Simon said of the 598 people the ACLU has documented who were shot and killed by police in the U.S. this year, 88 were unarmed.
“Kinsey or his patient could easily have become No. 89,” he said. “There must be a thorough and independent investigation into this shooting that covers both whether officers violated internal use of deadly force policies and whether criminal charges should be brought.”
Retired firearms expert Robert Hoelscher, who spent 50 years with the Miami-Dade Police Department, said it’s hard to perceive how the situation was misjudged, but it was — grossly.
“I wish there was something positive I could say. You arrive on scene and a guy’s playing with a toy truck. Why do you bring out the assault rifle?” Hoelscher asked. “You can’t get enough training when you’re dealing with lethal force. This is as bad a situation as I’ve ever seen. It’s a good thing he was obviously a lousy marksman.”
Rivera, at the end of his news conference Thursday, read from a statement he said was from the officer who shot Kinsey.
“I took this job to save lives and help people,” the officer said. “I did what I had to do in a split second to accomplish that and hate to hear others paint me as something that I’m not.”