The New York Times

August 10, 2013

Grief, and Cries of Outrage, Follow Taser Victim’s Death


MIAMI BEACH — When Israel Hernandez Bandera, a former airline pilot, came to the United States from Colombia eight years ago with his wife and two children after being granted political asylum, he was deeply grateful to the country that shielded him from the guerrillas who had extorted money from him and threatened to appropriate his family’s land.

Now, in the wake of the death of his 18-year-old son, who was chased down by Miami Beach police officers early Tuesday and collapsed after one of them shocked him with a Taser, Mr. Hernandez Bandera and his family are having doubts about justice in his adopted country.

“I believe in the United States,” he told reporters outside his home. “I am proud to be here. But this government should not support these acts.”

The death of the son, Israel Hernandez-Llach, an accomplished artist known as Reefa who the police say had been marking an abandoned building with graffiti when he was pursued, has become the focal point of protests calling for independent investigations into the officers’ conduct. Many of the protesters point out that Miami Beach police officers have been the subject of repeated complaints of excessive force in the past.

At a demonstration Saturday outside the shuttered fast-food restaurant that Mr. Hernandez-Llach was said to have been tagging when officers spotted him, several of his friends from Miami Beach High School, family members and political activists excoriated the tactics of the police and called for a reassessment of how officers should respond to low-level misdemeanors like the one that resulted in the young man’s death.

“We’re strong if we’re united for clarity and justice,” his 21-year-old sister, Offir Hernandez, told the crowd in a tremulous voice, as her distraught mother clung to her. Ms. Hernandez then begged people in the crowd not to let their anger get the best of them. “Don’t do anything illegal,” she said. “Behave properly, please, for him.”

Ms. Hernandez, her mother and other relatives held red roses above their heads as the crowd chanted, “Justice!”

City officials in Miami Beach announced Friday that they had formally asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review whatever findings arise from the investigation being conducted by the Miami Beach police.

“I have complete confidence in the integrity and capacity of the Miami Beach Police Department to conduct a fair and thorough investigation,” the city manager, Jimmy Morales, said in a statement. “But the role of the F.D.L.E. will provide further assurance to the public of the thoroughness and transparency of the investigation.”

Even as the police were looking into the conduct of their officers, a police spokesman said Friday that “no crime has been committed here” and that there was “definitely no gross negligence” on the part of the officer who fired the Taser. “You don’t die of a Taser,” Sgt. Robert Hernandez said, adding that the young man “could have died from physical exertion or a pre-existing condition, or something in his system.”

The officer, Jorge Mercado, has been placed on paid administrative leave and will undergo psychological counseling, but could return to work as soon as the police chief deems him fit to do so, Sergeant Hernandez said.

A witness said that Officer Mercado and other officers at the scene had celebrated Mr. Hernandez-Llach’s capture with laughter and high-fives as the young man lay on the ground after the chase. On Saturday, as the demonstration against the police’s actions was going on, half a dozen officers across the street laughed loudly at something one of them said. Many in the crowd booed when another officer pulled over a driver who had briefly held up traffic while commiserating with a protester.

The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office is conducting its own inquiry into the death, and all involved are awaiting the results of toxicology tests in the wake of an inconclusive autopsy.

“The family members, like everyone else who knew and loved Israel, are eager to get to the bottom of what happened,” said Todd McPharlin, a lawyer for the Hernandez family.

The abandoned McDonald’s restaurant where Mr. Hernandez-Llach got into fatal trouble is now covered in new tags, inscriptions and signs in his honor. “If we cannot trust our children with cops, who can we trust?” one sign said. Another bore the warning “Know your rights when dealing with police!”

The demonstration was not just a forum for the young. Miguel Gonell, a 67-year-old Cuban immigrant, railed loudly from the sidelines, calling the police “armed cowards” and comparing their actions to the worst of Fidel Castro’s repressions. “How can they kill a boy for being an artist?” Mr. Gonell asked. “This is worse than Cuba!”