A Closer Look at Police-Involved Shootings in Florida

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Team 6'S Tony Pipitone investigates why a Miami-Dade cop shot a 16 year old in the back nine times. (Published Wednesday, Sep 3, 2014)

Last month, Jason Carulla was shot and killed at the hands of police during a sting operation involving Miami-Dade and Coral Gables police.

Investigators had waited for Carulla to pick up a stolen vehicle at the FleaMarket store in Miami the evening of June 19 when Carulla allegedly tried to ram an unmarked police vehicle before police shot him to death.

He was 17.

Carulla is among six people who have been shot and killed during police-involved shootings in South Florida so far this year. At least four others have been injured in the same time period.

Critics say this latest incident is another example of how police-involved shootings and excessive force are undermining public confidence, and creating tension between law enforcement and the public.

For years, violent crime has been on a steady decline in Florida – down 43 percent since 1993 – and around the nation. Yet the number of fatal police involved-shootings or justifiable homicides, as classified by law enforcement, has been on the rise in the Sunshine State. In 1999, 14 cases were reported, and in 2013, 58 cases were identified, a 314 percent increase.

Lorie Fridell, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, said it is interesting how the officer-involved shootings in Florida are going up. However, she says, there’s no way to know if this – isolated or part of a nationwide trend – as there’s no reliable nationwide data. 

“My sense from national reports in recent years is that this might be the case,” Fridell said. “But the caveat associated with the data is that we can’t know for sure whether the statistics can reflect an actual phenomenon or variations in reporting by agency.”

John Rivera, president of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association, says he’s not surprised by the statistics.

“Maybe the streets are not statistically violent but [people] have become meaner and confrontation with police has become more brazen and bold,” Rivera said. “Police are specifically trained to protect themselves and others and they respond accordingly.”

Team 6 Investigators analyzed 14 years of data obtained from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the state agency that collects crime data from all law enforcement agencies in Florida. The reporting of what is known as the Uniform Crime Reports Program is voluntary, leaving doubts about how thorough the numbers are. Nonetheless, it is the only data that exists and has become the official measurement of crime in the state.

The supplemental homicide report includes justifiable homicide by police, justifiable homicide by civilians and negligent manslaughters. It also includes demographic data and relationships between victims and offenders, type of weapon used and other details.

For statistical purposes, the FBI defines justified homicide as the killing of a felon by police in the line of duty.

In Florida, a total of 574 justified homicides have involved over 110 law enforcement agencies, small and large, rural and urban, from 1999 to 2013. Miami-Dade Police Department, the largest department topped the state with 70 reported justified homicides, followed by Jacksonville Sheriff Office with 42 cases, which ranks second in size, and Miami Police and Hillsborough Sheriff Office both ranking third with a total of 31 cases each.

Besides being voluntarily reported, the statistics do not provide a complete picture because many law enforcement agencies don’t submit the data to the state agency until cases are investigated and ruled justifiable. Some internal investigations take as long as 8 years and it is not clear if law enforcement agencies systematically update the data with FDLE. Experts say inaccurate documentation of deadly force hampers the ability to provide transparency to the public and monitor trends.

Even so, the data shows an upward trend over the years.

Suman Kakar, a criminal justice professor at Florida International University, said because the UCR program is voluntary, law enforcement agencies are more likely to under-report crimes and this includes justified homicides.

“I’m not surprised by the numbers to some extent, but I’m suspicious of it,” Kakar said. “They [law enforcement] report what they want to report. But this is the tip of the iceberg.”

Miami-Dade Police Department, the largest law enforcement agency in the state with 2,811 sworn officers, and Jacksonville Sheriff Office, with a police force of 2,050, reported more fatal shootings per capita than any other law enforcement agency in the state. These law enforcement agencies reported six and five deaths per 100,000 residents, respectively.

By comparison, San Francisco Police Department is a similar police force to Miami-Dade PD with a total of 2,197 police officers. Yet San Francisco PD has documented 29 officer-involved deaths for the years of 2001- 2013. This represents three deadly police-involved shootings per 100,000 people, half the rate of Miami-Dade PD.

Civil rights attorneys said institutional changes are needed because the lack of accountability has become part of the culture among law enforcement leadership in South Florida during the past decade. Having no oversight and accountability, they say, come at a greater cost because the perception that police devalue the lives of some citizens creates tension between communities and law enforcement and discourage people to report crime or assist police during investigations.

“This should not come as a surprise given that we have not had any prosecution of police officers in decades,” said Jeanne Baker, attorney and chair of the police practices committee for the American Civil Liberties Union Miami chapter. “The message send to the police is ‘don’t worry, you won’t be held accountable.’”

John L. De Leon, a civil rights attorney in Miami, said people and communities lose faith in the criminal justice system when those in powerful places are not held accountable.

“Why should they [police] be concerned if there’s no accountability?” De Leon asked. “We need real constructed reform.”

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