The Miami New Times has investigated years of Taser use by police officers in South Florida and has found all sorts of problems. Contain your surprise. Reporter Michael E. Miller documents officers using them against the homeless and mentally ill to force compliance, not because the officers are being threatened in any way. And some of them are attempting to conceal their misuse of Tasers from their departments.
Miller's deep dive opens with the tale of a Miami Police officer using a Taser on a homeless man inside a Publix grocery store in order to intimidate him into staying away. The man was never arrested or charged with a crime. The officer never even filed a report about the incident. But a customer in the store witnessed what happened and filed a complaint with the police department.
From there Miller delves into the history of Tasers and their use, and more particularly their misuse. Miami police have used Tasers on 6-year-olds having temper tantrums, a 12-year-old girl skipping school, and many unarmed people who sometimes never even get charged with crimes. Miller notes that Miami, like the rest of the country, has seen a big drop in crime, but Taser use has remained steady since 2010 and fatal shootings by police have increased:
This statistic is troubling because Tasers were introduced with the promise of reducing deadly police-involved shootings, says Justin Mazzola, a researcher for Amnesty International.
"It hasn't really put a dent into when police are using their firearms," he says of national stats that mirror Miami's. "Tasers are being used in a myriad of incidents when normally use of force wouldn't even be necessary."
In a review of more than 100 police reports describing taserings, New Times found police regularly use their Tasers on nonviolent suspects simply for fleeing or "tensing."
In 72 of the cases New Times analyzed, the suspect was not armed. In 40 of the cases, charges were dropped or never even filed in the first place. The incident with the homeless man was not an anomaly:
On Thanksgiving weekend in 2013, Miami Beach Police Officer Enrique Rios spotted a homeless man named Michael Franks on Lincoln Road asking passersby for change. When Rios told him to get lost, Franks told the cop, "Go fuck yourself," and then resisted getting handcuffed. Rios wrote in a report that he "was forced to drive-stun the defendant for approximately three separate cycles in order to gain the defendant's compliance."
This appears to violate MBPD's rules because Franks was neither fleeing nor physically threatening. Instead, he was tasered simply to force him to comply with orders—a Taser use specifically banned in 2004. (Franks was convicted of panhandling and paid a $50 fine. The resisting arrest charge was dropped.)
Miami Police, meanwhile, have tasered at least a half-dozen homeless men in the past year, mostly for shoplifting food or clothes. On September 16, an officer zapped a homeless man twice for refusing to leave José Martí Park, where he was sleeping. A week later, another MPD officer tasered a homeless man who had wandered into Publix demanding food.
The use of Tasers in the Miami area has gotten much more attention since the killing of Israel Hernandez, an 18-year-old graffiti tagger who died as a direct result of getting tasered by officers in 2013 following a chase. Miller noted in 2013 that the officer who tasered Hernandez had a history of problem behavior. In this more recent story he points out the officer, Vincent Miller, is quick to turn to the Taser:
Many of Miller's taserings were worrying. Five times Miller had tasered homeless or poor people for shoplifting. On May 24, 2011, for instance, he shocked a man who had walked into a Target barefoot and then refused to take off the $19.99 Pro Spirit sneakers he had put on. On January 30, 2013, Miller confronted Zacharia Brown, a 31-year-old stealing ravioli and vitamins from the Publix on Biscayne Boulevard at 18th Street. When Brown fled, Miller chased him and shot him in the back with his Taser.
Read more statistics and horror stories about how police use their Tasers in Miami here.
(Hat tip to CharlesWT)