MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Before city commissioners passed a new law meant to help protect officers from civilian interference, Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements nodded his head in agreement when Rafael Paz, the acting city attorney, assured commissioners it would not make the recording of officers an arrestable offense.
Paz’s legal opinion during the public meeting in late June prompted Miami Beach Commissioner David Richardson to become the third commissioner to co-sponsor the ordinance. Richardson had expressed concern about witnesses like those who recorded George Floyd’s murder. The witnesses’ videos and testimony were key in the murder conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin.
“Is there anything in this provision ordinance that would prohibit someone from videotaping, because I know that with George Floyd there were some questions about bystanders videotaping the officers, and I know that has been a topic of conversation over the last year, on whether or not that’s permissible activity, so is there anything in this that would prohibit it? Would that be considered harassment?” he asked.
Unedited video: Miami Beach prohibits civilians from getting close to cops after warning
Paz said no. Two days after commissioners passed the ordinance, Chauvin was sentenced to 22-1/2 years in prison in a historic case prompting calls for more accountable policing.
The new city law Miami Beach commissioners counted on allowing officers to stop harassment is now at the center of one of the latest cases of alleged excessive and unwarranted use of force by police in Miami-Dade County.
Shortly before 2 a.m. on July 26, Miami Beach officers used their new city ordinance as the basis for two arrests. It prohibits any person with the intent to interfere with an officer performing a legal duty from being within 20 feet — after warning. Two tourists from New York, Khalid Vaughn and Sharif Cobb, stumbled upon the violent arrest of a Black man in the lobby of the Royal Palm Hotel and soon after found themselves injured and in handcuffs.
While officers took turns striking the man on the ground, Vaughn, 28, held up his mobile phone to record. He didn’t know Dalonta Crudup, a 24-year-old tourist from Kentucky, had been the subject of a police chase that left an officer injured. What Vaughn witnessed and what was captured on videos prompted Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to charge Sgt. Jose Perez and Officer Kevin Perez with battery on Monday.
Fernandez Rundle said Vaughn was about 15 feet away when he was recording. An officer’s body-worn camera video shows Vaughn took an additional four steps back just before Officer Robert Sabater ran to tackle him. Sabater put his arms around him and thrust him towards a large Art Deco column. The plastic bag Vaughn was holding was hurled to the ground. Vaughn, a former college basketball player, managed to keep his balance before a group of officers cornered him.
Another video shows Officer David Rivas punched Vaughn in the ribs while Officer Steven Serrano hit him repeatedly until he fell down. They arrested Vaughn for a violation of the new ordinance and resisting arrest with violence. Fire Rescue personnel took Vaughn to Mount Sinai Medical Center where he required stitches. Rivas and Serrano also face battery charges.
Cobb, 27, was also in the hotel when more than 20 officers flooded the lobby, and he also used his phone to record the melee. Like Vaughn, officers accused Cobb of violating the ordinance. During his arrest, an officer punched him in the chest and he “suffered a swollen left lip and scrapes on his ankles,” according to the arrest report. Miami-Dade court records show he is also facing a charge of resisting an officer without violence.
No officers are facing charges at this time in connection with Cobb’s arrest.
During the meeting in late June, Commissioner Steven Meiner, the sponsor of the Miami Beach ordinance used to arrest Vaughn and Cobb, said it was born out of efforts in Tallahassee to pass similar legislation, which he described as “a good idea.” Florida Rep. Alex Rizo, a Republican from Hialeah, proposed House Bill 11, which mirrors the ordinance in Miami Beach, but instead of 20 feet requires 30 feet and punishes an accused violator more severely with a second-degree misdemeanor.
Rizo filed his legislation in Tallahassee on July 19 as the first bill for the 2022 legislative session.
“Officers get surrounded and right now they have limited options on how to break that up,” Meiner said.
Commissioners have been working with Clements and Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber to look for ways to reduce crime in the South Beach entertainment district where the arrests of Vaughn, Cobb, and Crudup happened. Commissioner Ricky Arriola co-sponsored the ordinance. Samuelian was familiar with the proposals in Miami Beach and Tallahassee.
“I did bring the initial resolution for the state and I am honored to co-sponsor this,” Samuelian said before the ordinance passed. “I think we need to recognize that some of the behavior we are seeing in Miami Beach, and frankly nationwide, and the approach towards law enforcement is at a level of lack of respect that we haven’t seen in a long, long time.”
After a review of the July 26 videos, Fernandez Rundle quickly dropped Vaughn’s case. Miami-Dade court records show Cobb’s case remains open. Crudup faces four felony charges of aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer, fleeing and eluding, aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, and resisting an officer with violence. Fernandez Rundle made clear that this remains an ongoing investigation and that additional charges against Miami Beach officers may be filed.