October 20, 2020
When Florida cops punch first, they say it’s for safety. Critics question tactic and training.
By Linda Robertson, Charles Rabin, and David Ovalle

A drunk and unruly woman, being carried out of the stands at a University of Miami football game, weakly swipes at a burly Miami-Dade cop — who then hits her square in the face. A handcuffed suspect, standing toe-to-toe with another county officer, refuses to get into a patrol car and is slapped twice in the face.

A man refusing to leave a South Beach restaurant gets cold cocked by a Miami Beach police officer. The man, the cop claimed, was about to take a “fighting stance.”

Over the past couple years, each of these conflicts was caught on video clips that went viral, raising questions about whether police officers should have used brute force on people whose main offense appeared to be mouthing off to cops. In each case, the officers wound up facing no discipline.

As jarring as the videos were, the reality is that police officers across Florida have long employed — and are trained to use — punches and slaps to quell someone they believe is a threat. As the death of George Floyd in May sparked waves of protestsand a national reckoning on how police confront Black men in particular, departments moved to ban controversial chokeholds, including the knee-to-the-neck restraint that robbed Floyd of his last breaths.

But social justice advocates pushing for police reform want a broader reassessment of more common tactics, including how Florida police officers employ so-called “distraction strikes” that are delivered in the form of punches, slaps and even kicks.Officers insist they are needed for their own safety but critics believe that too often they provide cover for hot-headed cops losing their cool.

Kirk Burkhalter, a former 20-year New York City cop who now teaches at New York Law School, said such strikes are “not an effective tactic for defending oneself.”

“It’s a troublesome concept, assigning the nomenclature of diversion or distraction to soften the use of a punch. Sounds like a backwards attempt to justify an action,” Burkhalter said.

“In many of these instances, you’re not talking about a defensive strike. It is a pre-emptive strike. It’s an offensive move,” he said. “It’s important to understand when someone is preparing to do you harm and you should be trained to understand their signals. Just because someone is yelling and their arms are flailing does not mean they are necessarily a threat.”

Francois Alexandre said he was pummeled to a pulp by a half dozen Miami police officers while he was walking home to his downtown apartment during a celebration of the Miami Heat’s NBA championship victory at AmericanAirlines Arena in 2013. Still seeking justice for himself and others, Alexandre said that traumatic beating is the reason he’s led Black Lives Matter protest marches in Miami for the past two months.

“I’m a survivor of police brutality,” said Alexandre, whose left orbital bone was broken when he was put in a chokehold, slugged and kicked by the officers right after he began filming one of them shoving a woman to the ground. “They are taught to be Big Brother. They must strike first. They need to control the environment and silence you. Given such authority, they tend to abuse it. What is a threat anyway? How do you define that construct? It’s very subjective. It puts all the power and discretion in their hands.”

One recent case that went viral could become a challenge to what has been a widely accepted practice. As Black Lives Matter demonstrations were going on downtown, Miami-Dade Police Officer Antonio Rodriguez suddenly struck a Black woman who was taunting him at Miami International Airport last month.

Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez immediately said he was “shocked and angered” by the video and relieved Rodriguez of duty, moving to fire him — something that infuriated many of the rank and file in the county’s largest police department.

Police Benevolent Association President Steadman Stahl blasted the department’s attempt to fire Rodriguez as an “overreaction” spurred by the media coverage of ongoing Floyd protests. He defended Rodriguez, saying the woman had been threatening airline employees and got in the officer’s face.

“It’s one of those things that’s tough to look at. But you have to remember what led up to it. She jumped a counter and she was highly agitated,” he said.

Police work is not easy. American cops must contend with armed citizenry unseen in most Western nations, and much has been written about the militarization of police departments, and officers using their firearms. But national debates over police using punches and kicks against unarmed people — and whether strikes should be de-emphasized — are also nothing new in the United States.

After the vicious videotaped 1991 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, which eventually sparked devastating riots, reformers in the 1990s pushed the adoption of “verbal judo” — a phrase coined by renowned police trainer George Thompson for techniques on calming people down with words, not batons, punches or slaps.

Today, verbal judo is better known as “de-escalation.” With bystander cellphones and police body cameras, social and mainstream media today provide a regular stream of tense recorded interactions between cops and the public — putting a spotlight on practices that have been employed for decades, but largely out of the public eye.

The public also is largely ignorant of how cops are taught to deal with those moments, starting with a basic defensive tactics course taught at police academies across Florida. The standard curriculum, mandated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, teaches tactics to use on what’s known as the “continuum of force,” a scale that guides what force is needed to respond to escalations on the streets.

The FDLE curriculum is updated every couple of years — for example, a few years ago, it began to incorporate judo-style tactics because of the increased popularity of mixed martial arts among the public, said Tom Melnichok, a defensive tactics instructor at Palm Beach State College’s police academy.

He said distraction strikes are taught for just that — to catch a suspect off guard so that an officer can “gain full control” and handcuff the person.

“It’s not really to hurt you,” Melnichok said.

When Miami Beach Police Officer Adriel Dominguez punched Lowell Poitier Jr. at a South Beach restaurant in 2018, staffers had called police to complain the man was disturbing other patrons and refusing to extinguish his cigar. Body camera video shows that Poitier put his face within inches of the officer’s face after the officer stepped into Poitier’s path as Poitier was walking out toward the sidewalk. But Poitier did not raise his hands or appear to show the “fighting stance” the officer had reported triggered his reaction. 

Dominguez grabbed Poitier briefly with his left hand, then punched with his right. Poitier crumpled to the ground. His lawyers say Poitier was no threat and wasn’t going to fight the officer.

Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements acknowledged police work “doesn’t always look good,” but that Dominguez had acted appropriately.

“He was in what the officer perceived to be a fighting stance. In that case the officer reverted back to his training. It was a distractionary blow,” Clements told the Miami Herald.

Police training classes may include teaching such strikes, but some experts say U.S. police officers are too quick to revert to blows because, from the get-go, training is scant. One national survey, by the Police Executive Research Forum, found that recruits at police academies generally spend only about 8 hours on “de-escalation” and methods to deal with mentally ill people in crisis — compared to 58 hours on firearms.

Melnichok, of Palm Beach State, acknowledged that the basic defensive tactics course is only 80 hours and departments that hire a recruit usually add additional training. “Bare bones training to get them out the door,” he said of the FDLE curriculum.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says police work will always entail physical force that is “unpleasant and harsh.” She pointed out that countries such as Sweden and Finland require police officers to go to four-year academies, which include extensive instruction on martial arts.

“Given that the average police academy in the United States lasts 17 weeks, obviously there are deficiencies,” Haberfeld said.

Burkhalter believes police academies should stress education and people skills over the course of two years on the street and in the classroom and put less emphasis on fighting techniques. 

“Society has placed a lot more responsibilities on officers than in the past, which is why I’m an advocate of much more teaching on psychology, psychiatric disorders, sociology and anthropology so the police have a more educated, inclusive, compassionate understanding of who they are interacting with,” he said. “That’s a lot to learn but we have professionals who can teach it.”

Many of the staunchest police defenders agree training, particularly in ways to de-escalate confrontations without using force, should be an ever-evolving, ongoing process for established officers.

Scrutiny on police tactics in recent years has led to some shifts in South Florida.

Five years ago, after the protests over police use-of-force boiled over in Ferguson, Missouri, Miami’s Police Academy partnered with Florida International University to begin teaching a class for existing officers called “Policing Through Effective Communication.”

FIU no longer takes part in the training, but the course continues to be taught internally for Miami police officers, according to a Miami police spokeswoman.

Miami-Dade’s lauded “Crisis Intervention Training” has been taught to over 7,500 police officers from the county’s 36 agencies over the past decade. While the training focuses on “de-escalating” tensions of people suffering from a mental health crisis, officials believe the sessions have helped cut down on arrests — and those slaps and punches.

“The same skills you use for someone with a mental illness can and should be used with the general public,” said Miami-Dade Court Judge Steve Leifman, who helped create the program. “Teaching de-escalation skills is good for everybody.”

Still, there’s been no shortage of high-profile punches, kicks and rough arrests, ones that have surfaced in South Florida — and even led to a slew of arrests. But cops typically are cleared after internal reviews and juries have been reluctant to convict, tending to side with officers forced to making split-second decisions on the street.

In the University of Miami football game case in 2017, the department cleared Officer Douglas Ross of the punch on 30-year-old Bridget Freitas, saying he “acted instinctively” when she struck him.

BLM organizer Alexandre’s civil suit accusing two of the cops who punched him of excessive force and battery is scheduled for January after a U.S. District Court judge ruled their “use of force, on a non-violent man for what amounts to a misdemeanor, simply is not proportional to the need for that force.” 

At least three other criminal cases on rough arrests are pending trial in Miami-Dade. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, however, has lost three others at trial. In one case, a Miami-Dade police sergeant was acquitted after he took the stand to insist that he had to slap a handcuffed suspect because the man was about to spit on him.

“You don’t duck,” the sergeant, Manuel Regueiro testified at his trial. “Then, you’re a coward.”

That mentality riles police-reform advocates, who say those unwarranted punches and kicks will continue unless the whole culture of police departments changes, starting from the academy.

“Right now, their us versus them training creates a toxic discord with the community,” said lawyer Daniel Suarez, a former member of Miami’s Civilian Investigation Panel, a body that reviews use-of-force cases. “Cops are trained to demonize everybody and we have learned to distrust cops. We’re scared to look at them the wrong way or they might punch us or arrest us.”

Justin Pinn, who was a member of the advisory board created to oversee reforms at the Miami Police Department after a series of fatal shootings of Black men over a decade ago, said departments “need to see a change of mentality from warrior to guardian.”

“Yes, the person may be a threat, yes, the person may need to go to jail. Let’s assume the person will be angry. Police should respond by talking first, using non provocative language like ma’am and sir, and not yelling back,” Pinn said.

Putting those concepts into practice, however, is messy.

In the case at Miami’s airport, police claimed 21-year-old Paris Anderson had become belligerent when she missed a connecting flight. Officers said she would not stop yelling at ticket agents, and threatened to punch one.

When Officer Rodriguez — who is Black and of Puerto Rican descent — tried to get her to leave, she yelled at him. “You acting like you white when you really Black...what you want to do?” the woman yelled, jabbing her head toward his in the video.

Stahl, the union president, said Rodriguez tried talking her down to no avail.

“She also has no mask on. There is spittle hitting him in the face. She walks up to his face. He takes three steps back and she walks into him,” Stahl said. “He was going to make an arrest and he used a discretionary slap.”

Haberfeld, the John Jay police force expert, viewed the video and agreed.

“She absolutely presented a clear threat to him, violates his personal space and her body language and verbal expressions were violent,” Haberfeld said. “He had the right to use force against her. No doubt she was the aggressor.”

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office is still investigating whether Rodriguez, a tall and stout man, was justified in using force against the much smaller woman. Ultimately, prosecutors will have to decide whether he broke the law in hitting the woman.

Burkhalter, the former New York cop turned lawyer, also viewed the video. He believes Rodriguez could have done more before lashing out.

“De-escalation is a problem-solving approach. You’re using knowledge of human psychology,” Burkhalter said. “A diversionary blow is an instinctual approach. You’re hitting first, asking questions later.”