MIAMI—Shortly before a press conference about a police shooting in her district, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fl) watched the disturbing video of Charles Kinsey, a black mental health worker who was helping an autistic man from his group home when he was shot.
"The video is like a nightmare," she said, after rushing over to the press conference to speak to reporters. "What could have saved him from being shot? From what I saw he was lying on the ground with his hands up, freezing, being rational, and he was still shot."
Wilson, who represents the congressional district that includes North Miami, said her office typically works closely with officers in the city, citing community programs for black youth and specific officers that she has worked with. "We're pro-police. We love police!" she said. "But today I am in shock."
The video released Wednesday evening is the latest in a string of recent police shooting videos that have the nation on edge, bringing waves of police reform protests, and tragic shootings of police officers in response to the videos.
But the latest incident is also notable for another reason: it involved officers firing on a mental health care worker and a mentally ill man in the county with the highest rate of mental illness in the nation. Since 1999, more than 25 people with mental illnesses have been killed by police in Miami-Dade County.
In the video, Kinsey appears laying on his back on a North Miami street with his hands above his head. A 23-year-old with autism from the group home that Kinsey works had gone outside with a toy truck; Kinsey went out to bring him back inside. Police are heard screaming orders at the two of them, with the autistic man appearing oblivious as to what was going on. After the camera stopped rolling, officers fired shots. One hit Kinsey in the leg.
“I’m going to the ground, just like this with my hands up. And I’m laying down here just like this. And I’m telling him again, 'Sir, there’s no need for firearms. I’m unarmed, this is an autistic guy. He has a toy truck in his hand,’” Kinsey told station WSVN after the shooting.
North Miami Police were drawn to the scene after they received a call about someone with a gun who was threatening suicide, Assistant Police Chief Neal Cuevas told the Miami Herald. The officers shot when the autistic man didn't comply with orders.
The city of North Miami is diverse city of about 70,000 people. About a third of the city's residents, including large parts of city government, are Haitian. There is a large Latino population, and a West Indian population hailing from the Bahamas and Jamaica.
About 9.1% of the population in Miami-Dade County suffer from serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and depression, according to the 11th Judicial Circuit, nearly double the national average. That adds up to about 210,000 people, and doesn't include people with autism, which is considered a spectrum disorder. Yet the mentally ill and people on the autistic spectrum face similar challenges in their interactions with police.
Last year's police shooting of Lavall Hall, a 25-year-old diagnosed schizophrenic in the nearby city of Miami Gardens drew protests on how local police interact with the large mentally ill population. Hall's mother called the police to help readmit her son to a mental health hospital when they shot and killed him in the street.
“Why did they take my child’s life when I called for help?” his mother said at the time. Officers were cleared of all charges in that case.
A program by 11th Circuit Court Judge Steve Leifman, focused on decriminalizing mental illness and training thousands of officers, has received accolades from the Supreme Court, and is hailed as a national model for how to address the intersection of policing and mental illness.
In the press conference, North Miami Police Chief Gary Eugene declined to take questions from reporters, and unveiled little new information. He declined to identify the officers involved, whether officers were aiming at Kinsey or the autistic man, or how many shots were fired. The case is being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, he said.
In a statement issued after the press conference, State Attorney Katherine Rundle said it is waiting for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to complete its current investigation. "At that time, we will conduct our own investigation and review all of the evidence to determine whether the actions of the shooting officer constitute a criminal act that can be proven beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt," she said.
At the press conference, Rep. Wilson, a black congresswoman, called the event "a total breakdown."
She has contacted the Justice Department about the shooting, and promised to follow up with Chief Eugene regarding his non-responses and lack of transparency after the conference was over.
"[Kinsey] has my deepest, deepest sympathy," she said.
In a separate press conference, John Rivera, president of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association, defended the officers' actions, saying that he was only trying to save Kinsey's life and shoot the autistic man.
"It appeared to the officers that the white male was trying to do harm to Mr. Kinsey," he said. "Fearing for Mr. Kinsey's life, the officer discharged his firearm trying to save Mr. Kinsey's life, and he missed."
Rivera suggested that the officer was unable to hear Kinsey's pleas that he was a mental health worker, as they appear in the video. "If you can clearly hear Mr. Kinsey, why does every news outlet have to put subtitles?" he asked.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.