MIAMI BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - More than 200 people marched through Miami Beach on Sunday, clogging tourist-filled sidewalks to demand the arrest of a policeman who fired a stun gun at a graffiti artist who died in police custody.
The protesters alleged that Officer Jorge Mercado used excessive force when he used a Taser on Israel Hernandez-Llach, 18, during an arrest attempt in August.
“He was sentenced like a prisoner when he goes before a firing squad,” Hernandez-Llach’s father, Israel Hernandez Bandera, said on the steps of Miami Beach City Hall.
Friends, family and supporters carried signs reading “Paint is temporary, death is forever” and chanted “No justice, no peace” in English and Spanish.
Hernandez-Llach was prolific graffiti artist nicknamed “Reefa,” and the march was led by the Justice for Reefa Committee and the American Community Council. Marchers asked that Mercado be fired and arrested and that the Miami Beach Police Department change its policy regarding use of stun guns.
Police discovered Colombian-born Hernandez-Llach spray-painting the wall of an abandoned McDonald’s early on the morning of August 6. The teenager fled, evading police for several minutes before he was cornered and stunned with the Taser.
He died shortly afterward and friends who were with him told Reuters they heard and saw officers celebrating and high fiving while the young man’s body lay on the ground.
Medical examiners have yet to release a toxicology report or cause of death. Miami Beach Police have declined to comment pending an ongoing investigation.
The teenager’s father submitted a letter late last month to the U.S. Department of Justice and President Barack Obama alleging that police used excessive force and refused to provide him with information regarding the incident.
“I‘m not an investigator, just a broken father who wants answers,” he wrote.
He said his son’s body showed signs of mistreatment, including an injury to the forehead, after it was turned over to the family for the funeral.
“My biggest concern is was it due to the Taser or was it from blows (by police),” said his father.
Hernandez-Llach’s sister, Offir Hernandez, disputed speculation that her brother was on drugs at the time of the incident, but said that according to friends he had smoked marijuana that morning.
“He took care of himself,” she told Reuters. “He was very healthy and wouldn’t even drink sodas and ate salads and fish. He’d never put acid in his body.”
Hernandez-Llach’s family has also filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court against the Miami Beach Police Department and Mercado, seeking an undisclosed amount for damages and alleging the police used “unnecessary, excessive and unconstitutional force.”
The Colombian-born artist was slightly built and unarmed, and “officers had no reasonable basis to fear for their own safety or the safety of the public,” the lawsuit said.
Mercado was named in several prior complaints according to police Internal Affairs reports obtained by Reuters. He was disciplined for failing a drug test in 2011 but was exonerated in several other cases, including punching a man in the face during an off-duty fight in a men’s room in 2007.
Editing by Christopher Wilson