A City of Miami police officer violated federal law when he handcuffed a doctor without proper cause, and the police department is in need of new rules for detaining suspects, according to the city’s independent police oversight board.
In April of this year, Miami Police Department (MPD) Sgt. Mario Menegazzo questioned University of Miami physician and local activist Armen Henderson outside of his home and put him in handcuffs. Henderson was loading supplies into his van in anticipation of administering COVID-19 tests to homeless people as part of his work with the advocacy group Dream Defenders.
At a meeting last night, members of the Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP) found that the sergeant should not have handcuffed Henderson.
“He didn’t articulate any reason why he handcuffed him. After you articulate your suspicion to stop someone, you should articulate why you’re handcuffing them before doing it,” said Cristina Beamud, director of the CIP.
According to case law cited by the panel, under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, when an officer detains someone, the scope of the detention must be justified by the facts of the situation. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. CIP members argued that Henderson’s behavior in the video was not aggressive or concerning, and therefore it was unreasonable to detain him with handcuffs without explaining why.
The incident occurred on April 10. Menegazzo confronted Henderson and asked whether he lived at that address, explaining that he was getting reports of illegal dumping in the area and was suspicious of some trash at Henderson’s feet. Menegazzo was not wearing a body camera, but the interaction was caught on Henderson’s home security system. After a brief conversation, Menegazzo began yelling in Henderson’s face without a mask on, pointed a finger at him, and eventually handcuffed the doctor. Later, Henderson’s wife came out of the house and cleared things up by showing Menegazzo her husband’s ID.
Video of the interaction made national headlines amid a time of greater scrutiny of police behavior, and an MPD Internal Affairs investigation found Menegazzo had violated procedures by not calling in his stop to dispatchers and not wearing a mask during the pandemic. The internal investigators also sustained a complaint of discourtesy against Menegazzo for yelling at Henderson and pointing a finger in his face. He was given a written reprimand for the violations.
A fourth count in the complaint against Menegazzo argued that he improperly handcuffed Henderson without cause. MPD exonerated him on that count, saying the sergeant was within his rights to handcuff a suspect on the suspicion of a crime. That’s where the CIP disagreed.
IA justified Menegazzo’s cuffing of Henderson based on the rules for conducting what’s called a Terry stop, also known as stop and frisk. Under the guidelines for a Terry stop, police may stop and investigate someone who they have a reasonable suspicion to believe is engaged in criminal activity, according to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
But Beamud and other CIP members argued that nowhere in the rules for Terry stops does it say when it’s OK to handcuff a person and what procedures to take when doing so.
“[IA] applied Terry-stop reasoning, saying you could handcuff someone arbitrarily. Clearly that’s not true,” Beamud said.
Rodney Jacobs, assistant director of the CIP, tells New Times there are no departmental orders or guidelines that outline when a Miami police officer should handcuff someone during a Terry stop, so it’s hard to determine whether officers should know exactly what to do.
“There’s no rule as to what to do in that situation in the departmental orders. The piece that’s missing is if he would know what to do in that situation,” says Jacobs.
After reviewing the video several times, members of the panel commented on how quickly Menegazzo escalated the situation, despite no attempts from Henderson to run away or harm the officer.
“My first issue is that it didn’t seem like the handcuffing was justified in any way. For me, the handcuffing did not seem correct,” said panel member Minca Brantley.
The panel members also agreed that it seemed highly unlikely that Menegazzo had a reasonable suspicion that Henderson was illegally dumping, because he was in broad daylight, placing things into his car rather than throwing things out, and because there were only a few pieces of debris on the ground, including a broom.
“That’s not illegal dumping,” said chairperson Eileen Damaso. “I don’t know what the officer was thinking.”
The panel concluded that Menegazzo violated proper procedures by handcuffing Henderson without enough justification and that MPD policies fail to appropriately outline the procedure for handcuffing during a Terry stop.
The panel has no power to actually discipline officers or create new departmental orders but sends its recommendations to MPD Chief Jorge Colina. Panel members said they would recommend that the police department sustain the allegation of improper procedure against Menegazzo for handcuffing Henderson and create new orders better explaining Terry stops. They also want any officer who interacts with the public to wear a body camera when doing so.
Henderson, who attended the meeting and shared his story of the interaction, tells New Times he hopes MPD takes the CIP’s recommendations seriously rather than shrugging them off.
“I’m hoping the chief will do right thing and listen to the CIP, but I don’t think he will, which is sad given the moment we’re in,” Henderson says.