Prosecutors charged a Florida police officer with attempted manslaughter on Wednesday, nine months after he shot an unarmed black behavioral therapist who was lying flat on his back in the street next to a patient holding a toy truck.
North Miami police officer Jonathan Aledda also faces a misdemeanor charge of negligence stemming from the incident, which became instantly notorious thanks to video showing the therapist calmly reasoning with both his patient and police and then getting shot anyway.
Charles Kinsey, the therapist, survived a gunshot wound to the leg. Arnaldo Rios, the patient, was not struck by any of the three rifle shots Aledda fired.
Aledda’s decision to shoot at Rios and Kinsey last summer remains difficult to comprehend. Kinsey was flat on his back, hands in the air. Rios was sitting cross-legged at Kinsey’s feet, playing with a toy truck.
Officers at the scene had little reason to anticipate that deadly force would be necessary — only the initial 911 call where a woman first told a dispatcher she saw a gun in Rios’ hand, then later said “I don’t know if it’s a gun.”
And Aledda was 150 feet away with a rifle while two colleagues were right up close trying to talk with the two men.
For nine months, all that video and circumstantial evidence that Aledda’s actions were unwarranted was insufficient for local prosecutor Katherine Fernandez Rundle. But new evidence uncovered by the Miami New Times in early April reshaped the case dramatically.
A fellow officer told Aledda that Rios was holding a toy and specifically told his colleagues to stand by and not shoot, the audio obtained by the New Times shows.
That new information — in the form of the police chief’s own interview with state investigators, which paints a grim picture of the force he began leading just six days before Kinsey was shot — appears to have sparked action in Rundle’s office.
In almost 25 years as State Attorney for Miami-Dade County, Rundle had never charged an officer in an on-duty shooting before Wednesday’s announcement.
Individual accountability for Aledda will still be difficult. On the rare occasion that police officers are actually charged in on-duty shootings, they are almost never convicted thanks to a combination of jury deference and muddled legal standards for judging police behavior.
But even if Rundle wins her case — or if putting Aledda before a jury at all counts as accountability — the broader issues in the North Miami police force will be much harder to fix.
The Kinsey shooting illustrates at least three well-known problems common to many police forces around the country: a lack of training in the resolution of mental health crises; training that emphasizes escalation and action over conflict resolution; and the overuse and misapplication of paramilitary SWAT team tactics.
Aledda is a veteran of the North Miami SWAT team. North Miami has a population of 61,000 and is directly adjacent to a major metropolis with a large and well-resourced police infrastructure. It exemplifies the spread of such high-adrenaline tactical police units to small and mid-size communities that arguably do not need them.
Tactical units in such places primarily end up serving drug warrants — which brings its own tragedies and civil rights abuses — and otherwise twiddling their thumbs for lack of hostage situations, bank robberies, and terrorist attacks that might actually require their equipment and skill set. Over time, that underutilization makes it more likely that SWAT will get dispatched to an inappropriate situation, such as a mental health specialist talking to a patient on the street.
Aledda and others in the North Miami department have also been ill prepared for the job by their training, according to their own boss.
“I realized I have a problem with the training of my staff,” Chief Gary Eugene told investigators in the same interview tape that is so damning of Aledda’s conduct that day. “We’re talking about some 15- or 16-year veterans, but in North Miami, a 15- or 16-year veteran may have less experience than a two-year cop in Miami.”
Early this year, North Miami decided to review its police training standards with an eye toward re-training the whole department. The efforts will reportedly focus on equipping officers to better understand people with mental health issues.