MIAMI BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - The father of an 18-year-old graffiti artist who died after being struck by a Taser during a chase with police in Miami Beach, on Thursday called for an independent investigation into what he called “an act of barbarism.”
Police say they witnessed Israel Hernandez-Llach spray-painting a shuttered former McDonald’s restaurant early on Tuesday and stunned him with the electroshock weapon after he refused to stop.
Miami Beach Police Chief Raymond Martinez said his department was investigating the incident and expressed his condolences to the family of Hernandez-Llach, a Colombian immigrant who graduated from high school this summer.
The family held a press conference with lawyers at their Miami Beach apartment on Thursday to say they planned to file a complaint with the FBI or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement over what they described as excessive use of force by the officers involved.
“We do not want Miami Beach police investigating the Miami Beach Police Department. We’re calling for an independent investigation by an outside agency,” said Jose Javier Rodriguez, an attorney for the family and a Florida state legislator.
“There is no justification of this kind of action for a second-degree misdemeanor,” said Jason W. Kreiss, another lawyer representing the family.
Hernandez-Llach would likely not have been prosecuted over the spray-painting and would have faced a punishment of community service, he added.
Martinez said Hernandez-Llach fled after being seen “vandalizing private property” shortly before dawn on Tuesday.
He was chased by police and ignored commands to stop running, at which point an officer used his Taser, the police chief said in a statement.
Once in custody, Hernandez-Llach displayed signs of medical distress and was pronounced dead soon after, he said.
“At this time, the cause of death has not been determined by the medical examiner’s office. Autopsy and toxicology results are still pending as well,” Martinez added.
The artist’s father, Israel Hernandez-Bandera, called his son’s death “an act of barbarism” and an “assassination of a young artist and photographer.”
Friends of Hernandez-Llach who witnessed the police chase accused officers of making jokes after using the Taser.
“I saw four or five cops converge on him and hit him up against the wall,” said Felix Fernandez, 18.
He said he was standing nearby acting as a lookout for Hernandez-Llach and tried to warn him when he heard police sirens approaching.
“They were making jokes about how he stiffened up when he was tased. They were congratulating each other on how they caught him,” he said, standing by a wall where friends had placed flowers and farewell notes by a solitary letter, “R,” sprayed on the wall.
Hernandez-Llach, who identified himself by the so-called tag name “Reefa,” was known for his graffiti work as well as for his sculptures and paintings.
“He did it a lot,” said Hernandez-Llach’s friend, Rafael Lynch, referring to his graffiti. “He wasn’t a bad person at all. The cops didn’t like him or what he looked like.”
The two often met at a Miami Beach skateboard shop where Lynch works.
“To me, right now, he’s still here. I hung out with him so much I couldn’t imagine him dead,” Lynch said.
Writing by David Adams; Editing by Kevin Gray, Andrew Hay and Xavier Briand