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Civil rights lawyer Ben Crump assails Miami police for shooting Black man with mental health issues

Attorney Benjamin Crump (center) told WLRN that the shooting last month of Donald Armstrong by a Miami Police officer was “unconscionable,” “horrific,” and “deplorable.” He spoke outside the Miami-Dade criminal courthouse on Tuesday, March 9. Beside him is Denise Armstrong, the mother of Donald Armstrong, attorney Sue- Ann Robinson, co-counsel Larry Handfield, pastor Gaston Smith.
D.A. Varela
/
Miami Herald
Attorney Benjamin Crump (center) told WLRN that the shooting last month of Donald Armstrong by a Miami Police officer was “unconscionable,” “horrific,” and “deplorable.” He spoke outside the Miami-Dade criminal courthouse on Tuesday, March 9. Beside him is Denise Armstrong, the mother of Donald Armstrong, attorney Sue- Ann Robinson, co-counsel Larry Handfield, pastor Gaston Smith.

UPDATE: This story was updated Tuesday at 9 p.m. to note that felony charges against Donald Armstrong were dropped on Tuesday and attorney Ben Crump's statement regarding the reduced charges.

The police-involved shooting last month of a Black Miami man — whose mother said she called 911 because her son was having a mental health crisis — represents yet another disturbing example of how police officers fail to handle such emergency calls for help and routinely impose criminal charges to justify using lethal force, said Ben Crump, an attorney representing the victim and who has worked on some of the nation’s most racially charged cases.

“It's like smoke and mirrors,” Crump told WLRN’s South Florida Roundup host Tim Padgett in an interview broadcast Friday.

“Let's go charge [the Black victim] so nobody will be talking about charging the police officer,” he said. “Then they try to assassinate the [Black victim’s] character with trumped up charges and trying to air out any negative thing they can.”

“We've experienced this in the Black community far too often, especially in the greater Liberty City area of Miami, where blacks are routinely profiled, and then have their constitutional rights violated in the most egregious ways,” Crump told WLRN.

The latest police-involved shooting happened around 2:45 p.m. on March 7 when the mother of 47-year-old Donald Armstrong called 911 because her son was having a volatile mental breakdown. The home at Northwest 58th Street and Seventh Court is near Liberty City, a section of the city with almost 50,000 residents and a majority Black population.

READ MORE: 'He needed help': How a 'psychotic' unarmed man was killed by a cop at a West Palm Beach school

Police officers, who reported that Armstrong was armed with a possible weapon, tasered him twice. As he fell toward them, one of the officers, Cassandra Mercado, fired ten shots at Armstrong, hitting him six times, according to Crump and a cellphone recording of the encounter.

Miami police, in a statement following the shooting, said they had been called to the home to respond to “a call involving a subject possibly high on narcotics causing a disturbance on scene” and that “officers encountered an aggressive subject who was armed with a sharp object.”

Armstrong’s neighbors recorded the confrontation between Armstrong and police officer on a cell phone and posted it on social media, and shared it with local media outlets, including the Miami Herald, WLRN’s news partner.

In the two-minute video, several Miami police officers are seen standing a short distance from Armstrong, who is seen standing on his porch. He appears to be armed with a knife or a screwdriver but investigators have not confirmed what he had in his hand. The Miami Herald reportedMarch 20 that the object may have been a musical wand.

Armstrong is then heard yelling at the officers, “Shoot! Shoot in the heart.”

The officers told him to move away from a child standing alongside him before moments later firing twice with stun guns. He then fell forward in front of the driveway of his porch. With Armstrong on the ground, one Miami police officer shot him.

The shots did not kill Armstrong but left him paralyzed. Armstrong was later charged with aggravated assault, which outraged the local community.

Donald Armstrong, 47, was shot by Miami police on March 7, 2024. Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Armstrong, said his client was suffering a mental breakdown
Courtesy
/
Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department
Donald Armstrong, 47, was shot by Miami police on March 7, 2024. Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Armstrong, said his client was suffering a mental breakdown

Crump told WLRN that he and his co-counsel, Larry Handfield, are seeking all charges be dropped. They told WLRN that Miami-Dade prosecutors had indicated to them the felony assault charge would be withdrawn.

This is a man who was having a mental health crisis, so why would you charge him for a crime of any type, unless you're trying to cover up for the wanton, willful excessive use of force that we saw exhibited on that video,” said Crump who called the actions by police as “unconscionable,” “horrific,” and “deplorable.”

Miami police shot a man near Northwest Seventh Court and 57th Street in Miami, Florida on Thursday, March 7, 2024.
Al Diaz
/
Miami Herald
Miami police shot a man near Northwest Seventh Court and 57th Street in Miami, Florida on Thursday, March 7, 2024.

A spokesperson for Crump said Tuesday in a statement that Miami-Dade prosecutors dropped charges of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. And that a charge of resisting arrest without violence were reduced to a single count of misdemeanor resisting arrest.

Crump said Armstrong should have no charges against him.

“Any charge against Donald Armstrong is an attempt to cover up the excessive police force that left him paralyzed," he said. "Donald needed mental health assistance but instead was met with tasers, bullets, and now a criminal charge. Why do we continue to criminalize the mental health of minorities? 

“While some of the charges against Donald being dropped is a step in the right direction, it falls short of full justice. Donald is still being charged with resisting arrest — a charge that in this situation, ignores the definition of resisting arrest and neglects the state of his mental health.” 

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office did not respond to WLRN about the charges being dropped,

Armstrong remains in the medical wing of the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, according to jail records.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which handles all police-involved shootings, is now the primary agency investigating the case. The Miami police department is also conducting an internal investigation.

Following the March 7 shooting, Miami Police Chief Manny Morales, in a statement to media, acknowledged that his officers must improve their response tactics when dealing with situations involving people suffering from mental health breakdowns.

“I pledge to ensure that our department does better in addressing calls involving mental and behavioral issues,” he said.

Crump said the shooting left Armstrong paralyzed, saying his client cannot walk and is forced to wear a colostomy bag.

“The bullets hit him in his back, in his arm, in his chest area,” Crump told WLRN.

Crump said what has enraged Armstrong’s family and the larger community is the fact that Armstrong’s mother sought the help of police for her son having a mental health crisis.

“She called 911 and said, ‘I need help. My son is having a mental episode. He has mental issues,'” said Crump. “So they knew it wasn't a criminal call. It was a wellness call.

“They came and the mother even says on the porch there, ‘Please don't kill my son,’ which is the cry of every black parent in America, when their child has interactions with law enforcement, ‘Please don't kill my child.’”

Crump noted that only one police officer, Mercado, used lethal force in firing their weapon and the other officers did not fire any gun shots at Armstrong.

Asked about the police version of events, in which they said Armstrong was “armed with a sharp object,” Crump said “there’s been speculation” but countered that “there was no need for this excessive use of force."

“What [police] are trying to do is re-engineer justification,” he said “There is no justification when you see that video.”

Crump said the video shows that Armstrong had fallen to the ground after being shot with a second taser, and that experts his team of lawyers consulted say the shooting by the officer was unjustified.

In the WLRN interview, Crump said every police officer must and should be held liable for their actions.

“We should all value and respect our police officers and understand that they play an important role in society,” said Crump. “But in the same regard as any member of society, if they do wrong, they should be held accountable.”

Helen Acevedo, a freelance producer, is a grad student at Florida International University studying Spanish-language journalism, a bilingual program focused on telling the stories of diverse communities.
Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
Sergio Bustos is WLRN's Vice President for News. He's been an editor at the Miami Herald and POLITICO Florida. Most recently, Bustos was Enterprise/Politics Editor for the USA Today Network-Florida’s 18 newsrooms. Reach him at sbustos@wlrnnews.org
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