Police in South Florida shot an unarmed black caretaker Monday as he tried to help his autistic patient.
Charles Kinsey was trying to retrieve a young autistic man who had wandered away from an assisted living facility and was blocking traffic when Kinsey was shot by a North Miami police officer.
The North Miami Police Department said that they were responding to a call about an armed man threatening suicide, but they have released few other details about the shooting itself.
In cellphone footage of the incident that emerged Wednesday, Kinsey can be seen lying on the ground with his hands in the air, trying to calm the autistic man and defuse the situation seconds before he is shot.
“All he has is a toy truck in his hand,” Kinsey can be heard saying in the video as police officers with assault rifles hide behind telephone poles approximately 30 feet away.
“That’s all it is,” the caretaker says. “There is no need for guns.”
Seconds later, off camera, one of the officers fired his weapon three times.
A bullet tore through Kinsey’s right leg.
Kinsey said he was stunned by the shooting.
“I was thinking as long as I have my hands up … they’re not going to shoot me,” he told local television station WSVN from his hospital bed.
“Wow, was I wrong.”
Kinsey said he was even more stunned by what happened afterward, when police handcuffed him and left him bleeding on the pavement for “about 20 minutes.”
His attorney called the video “shocking.”
“There is no reason to fire your weapon at a man who has his hands up and is trying to help,” Hilton Napoleon told The Washington Post in a telephone interview Wednesday night.
Napoleon called for the department to fire the officer.
North Miami is a city of about 62,000 people that sits on Biscayne Bay, tucked between the much larger cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Gary Eugene, the city’s police chief, was appointed to the position just a month before the shooting. He had joined the department in 2013 following his retirement from the Miami police force, where he spent nearly three decades.
“I realize there are many questions about what happened Monday night,” Eugene said during a news conference Thursday. “We all have questions … I assure you, we’ll get all the answers.”
Eugene said he had asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to investigate the shooting, and a spokeswoman for that agency confirmed Thursday morning that it had launched an investigation.
“Bringing in an outside agency shows our commitment to transparency and objectivity in a very sensitive matter,” Eugene said.
In a statement, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the state attorney for Miami-Date County, said her office would conduct its own investigation after the state probe is completed, and would “review all of the evidence to determine whether the actions of the shooting officer constitute a criminal act.”
Eugene and the North Miami police did not release the name of the officer involved, referring questions instead to the state agency, which said it would not name the officer.
The police department has released relatively few details about the shooting, which drew widespread attention days after it occurred when video of the episode began to spread online.
During his briefing Thursday, Eugene said that police received a 911 call Monday just after 5 p.m. about “a male with a gun threatening to commit suicide.” There were witnesses that also reported a gun, Eugene said.
“Our officers responded to the scene with that threat in mind,” Eugene said. But he said there were no guns at the scene. “I want to make it clear: There was no gun recovered.”
In a statement Tuesday, the police department had offered slightly more about what unfolded: “Arriving officers attempted to negotiate with two men on the scene, one of whom was later identified as suffering from Autism,” the statement said. “At some point during the on-scene negotiation, one of the responding officers discharged his weapon, striking the employee of the [assisted living facility].”
Police have not responded respond to multiple requests for comment. According to their statement, the officer involved has been placed on administrative leave, as is standard policy in police-involved shootings.
Authorities have not said why the officer opened fire on an unarmed man with his hands prominently in the air and with another man nearby.
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said the Justice Department was aware of the North Miami shooting, but she said federal officials do not know enough yet to know if they will review it.
“I’m aware of the incident, and we’re working with our partners in the area to gather more information about it,” Lynch said during a news conference Thursday. “We’re trying to gather all the facts about it so we can determine, essentially, how that matter will be handled or reviewed.”
This latest shooting comes at a tense time for police and civilians, after a remarkably fraught period that saw high-profile shootings of and by police officers.
Police across the country are on alert after gunmen ambushed officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge just days apart, killing eight officers. At the same time, police are under scrutiny after the fatal shootings of two black men earlier this month. Bystanders filmed Baton Rouge police fatally shooting Alton Sterling in the early hours of July 5. Less than 48 hours later, Philando Castile was fatally shot by an officer in Falcon Heights, Minn. His girlfriend streamed the aftermath on Facebook Live.
Like those two incidents, the Monday afternoon altercation was partially captured on camera.
“He was lying on the ground, with his hands up, freezing, being rational, and he was still shot,” Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla., who represents part of Miami-Dade County, said at the news conference Thursday.
“This is not supposed to be happening in North Miami,” she said. “North Miami is a city where the police officers and the community gel. So many of our police officers come from the community, live in the community, work with the community.”
Before the recording began Monday, the young autistic man had apparently wandered away from a North Miami assisted living facility. A manager at the facility told WSVN that the man was “about 23 years old, he’s autistic, he’s nonverbal [and] he’s relatively low-functioning.”
The autistic man sat on the ground, blocking traffic, while he played with a small white toy truck, Napoleon told The Post.
Kinsey, an employee at the facility, went to retrieve him.
Around the same time, someone in the area called 911 and reported seeing a man with a gun threatening to commit suicide, police said.
According to Napoleon, Kinsey was trying to persuade the autistic man to get out of the street when police approached with their rifles raised.
With the Sterling and Castile shootings on his mind, Kinsey lay down on the ground and put his hands in the air.
“I was really more worried about him than myself,” Kinsey told WSVN, referring to the autistic man.
Two bystander videos capture snippets of what happened next.
A video from before the shooting – obtained by Napoleon and shared with The Post – begins with bystanders saying “Look, look, look,” in Spanish.
“Mira, mira, mira,” a man can be heard saying, training his cellphone camera on Kinsey, who is on the ground with his hands up and trying to get the autistic man to do the same.
“Lay down on your stomach,” Kinsey tells the young man.
“Shut up,” the autistic man shouts. “Shut up, you idiot.”
Kinsey turns his attention to the police.
“Can I get up now?” he asks. “Can I get up?”
As police aim their assault rifles at the men in the street, Kinsey tries to explain to them that they pose no threat.
“All he has is a toy truck in his hand. A toy truck,” Kinsey can be heard saying in the video. “I am a behavioral therapist at a group home.
“That’s all it is,” he says, referring to the toy truck. “That’s all it is. There is no need for guns.”
“Let me see your hands,” a cop can be heard shouting at the autistic man. “Get on the ground. Get on the ground.”
The autistic man then begins to make noises, apparently playing with his toy.
“Rinaldo, please be still,” Kinsey tells his patient. “Sit down, Rinaldo. Lay on your stomach.”
The video then cuts out, leaving a critical gap in the footage.
Seconds later, off camera, one of the officers fired his weapon three times.
One of the bullets struck Kinsey near his right knee, exiting his upper thigh.
“My life flashed in front of me,” he told WSVN, adding that his first thought was of his family.
His second thought was one of confusion.
“When he shot me, it was so surprising,” he said. “It was like a mosquito bite, and when it hit me, I’m like, I still got my hands in the air, and I said, ‘No, I just got shot.’ ”
“Sir, why did you shoot me?” Kinsey recalled asking the officer.
“He said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
A second video captures the moments after the shooting, as officers placed the injured Kinsey and the autistic man into handcuffs.
“He was like, ‘Please don’t shoot me,’ ” a bystander can be heard saying on the video. “Why they shot the black boy and not the fat boy?”
“Because the things with the blacks,” another man says.
“I don’t know who’s guilty,” adds what sounds like a woman’s voice.
It was the officers’ reaction after the shooting that upset Kinsey and Napoleon the most.
“They flipped me over, and I’m face-down in the ground, with cuffs on, waiting on the rescue squad to come,” Kinsey told WSVN. “I’d say about 20, about 20 minutes it took the rescue squad to get there. And I was like, bleeding – I mean bleeding and I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
“Right now, I am just grateful that he is alive, and he is able to tell his story,” his wife, Joyce, told the TV station.
Kinsey was “dumbfounded” by the shooting, Napoleon said.
“He should recover physically but he is really kind of mentally distraught,” the attorney added. “As you can see in the video, he did everything he thought he had to do and then some … and still got shot.”
Napoleon said his client was on the ground with his hands up, as in the video, when shot.
“Nobody got up or approached” the officers, the attorney said, adding that the fact that the officer fired three times shows it was “not an accident.”
“The straw that really breaks the camel’s back, that makes it even more frustrating, is that after my client was shot, they handcuffed him and left him on the hot Miami summer pavement for 20 minutes while fire-rescue came and while he was bleeding out,” Napoleon said. “But for the grace of God he wouldn’t be with us.”
“That toy truck does not come close to looking like a gun,” he told The Post. “The officers had more than enough time to look and make a determination and not just base it on what they heard on the telephone. They have an obligation to go and look and determine if [reports of an armed man were] right and they had ample opportunity to do so.”
Napoleon said he knew better than most the dangers cops endure on a daily basis.
“You’re talking to someone whose dad was a police officer in the city of Detroit in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said. “I understand it. I had a fear when I was a child of whether or not my father was going to come home.
“But at the end of the day, we can’t use that as an excuse to allow police officers to shoot unarmed individuals,” he said. “Just like the police ask the community to not judge them based on … however many bad apples that are out there. In the same sense, they have to be able to hold themselves to the same standard and not hold the entire [black] community responsible for the incidents that happened in Dallas and Baton Rouge.”
Napoleon said he was already in negotiations with the city of North Miami regarding a possible settlement.
“I have confidence that the city is going to negotiate in good faith and try to resolve this issue,” he said. “At a minimum, we would request that they terminate the officer immediately based on what’s in the video.”
The attorney said he trusted the state’s attorney’s office to determine whether criminal charges should be filed against the officer.
Napoleon said Kinsey, a father of five, is involved in community efforts to keep youths out of trouble and in school.
“He’s just a solid guy,” he said of his client, who remains hospitalized. “It takes a special individual to work with people with special needs, as this young man did. That shows his character.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Michael E. Miller, Mark Berman