Sheila McNeil watched the television newscasts from her Overtown apartment with a deep pain in her gut.
The shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., hit close to home.
“I know that mom is going through hell right now just trying to understand,” she says.
Three years, ago, her son Travis McNeil was killed by Miami police officer Reynaldo Goyos during a traffic stop. Travis McNeil was 28. He was not armed.
Officer Goyos was not criminally charged in Travis McNeil’s death, but an internal department review found he used “unjustifiable deadly force."
Two years after the shooting, Goyos was fired.
The Miami police union requires all firings go to arbitration. An arbitrator recently ruled Goyos be reinstated.
The Travis McNeil case gives a glimpse at how fired police officers often get their badges back in Florida and around the country — even when the top brass say they want the officer gone.
On Feb. 10 2011, Travis McNeil and his cousin had just left a popular strip club on the edge of Little Haiti in Miami. They’d been kicked out for being drunk.
A federal and local task force was investigating the Take One Lounge for gang activity and drugs that night.
According to police records, Goyos was in one of the two unmarked police cars that stopped McNeil’s car after he was observed driving erratically from the club.
“I approached the vehicle at a low ready stance, giving a lot of verbal commands, 'Show me your hands, show me your hands,' ” said Goyos in a 2012 internal affairs interview.
Goyos said he could see both men had their hands on their laps, but he said Travis McNeil did not respond to his command to show him his hands.
According to Goyos, Travis McNeil made an abrupt movement ducking down as if to reach for something and as he came up, Goyos observed a black object in McNeil’s hand. He said he thought the object was a gun.
“I was in fear for my life, in fear for my partner’s life and that’s when I fired three shots at the driver,” said Goyos.
Travis McNeil was hit once, and died. His cousin Kareem William was shot twice. He survived his injuries.
There were no weapons found in the car. Police found two cell phones on the floorboard near Travis.
Officer Goyos declined requests for an interview.
Randy Berg, a civil rights attorney, represents the McNeil family in a federal lawsuit against the federal
government and Miami.
He says it’s likely Travis’ cell phone had been in his lap. It might have fallen as Travis went to put his hands up. And he might have reached for it.
“What occurred with Travis McNeil was at best a traffic stop and it should have been handled like a traffic stop,” says Berg. “Not like it was predetermined that these are dangerous men who had weapons who were out to harm law enforcement. That wasn’t the case at all.”
When Travis McNeil died, he became the seventh black man killed by Miami police in a span of seven months. Two were unarmed.
The sixth was his friend.
Sheila McNeil says just a couple weeks before Travis was shot, a cousin who was a Miami Beach police officer gathered all of the young men in the family and gave them “the talk." The one black families give their sons all over the country.
“There’s a way you do things when police stop you. She went over this with them. Travis was standing right there in her face,” McNeil says. “We had just talked about this."
The shootings sparked community outrage and protests.
Police chief Miguel Exposito lost his job and the Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation that found the city’s police department used excessive force.
In a closeout memo, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office found the shooting to be justified and declined to prosecute Goyos.
The state attorney's office noted Travis McNeil's only criminal infractions that night were possibly driving under the influence and resisting arrest without violence by disobeying Goyos' commands.
In explaining why prosecutors would not pursue charge against Goyos, the memo stated Goyos could successfully claim he was in fear for his life after Travis McNeil failed to obey his commands to show him his hands and reached down toward the floorboard because "it is established that criminal suspects often conceal or store fire arms under the seats of their vehicles. "
But an internal police department firearms review board found “an unjustifiable use of force.” Goyos was fired in January 2013.
Miami police union president Sgt. Javier Ortiz disagreed with that decision.
“The reason why he was fired was solely because of politics. There were obviously some that came to rush to judgment to what occurred,” Ortiz says.
Recently, an arbitrator ruled that Goyos believed he was in danger and that the federal agent driving the car put him in danger by where he positioned the car.
Goyos got his job back last month. The arbitrator also ruled the city will have to pay him $72,000 in back pay.
“I wish it was that easy to get my son back,” Sheila McNeil says.
She struggles with what to tell her grandchildren about the police. She says she teaches them to respect police officers, “but how do you tell a child to respect someone that just killed your cousin or your uncle?”