On Dec. 5, 1999, John Mina, then a sergeant with the Orlando Police Department, was working an off-duty job guarding an Orlando bar.
Two allegedly armed people entered what was then the Orlando Ale House on South Kirkman Road, directly across the street from the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Studios Orlando. The hotel had opened barely three months prior. Orlando police arrested one of the alleged robbers—27-year-old Ulysses L. Allen. Allen’s alleged accomplice was 17-year-old Joseph A. Dungee III.
Mina shot the child to death.
He then rose through the ranks of the police department, serving as chief from 2014 to 2018. In November 2018, he won a special election for Orange County sheriff and is now running for re-election as the county’s heavily favored—and deep-pocketed—incumbent. (Mina, a former Republican, is now running as a Democrat in the state’s Aug. 18 primary.)
In the wake of the George Floyd uprisings, Orlando-area civil rights activists are now asking why Mina deserves to be re-elected, especially since data shows that the Orlando Police Department was one of the most violent in the nation during his tenure as chief.
Mina has never claimed to be a progressive’s dream candidate, but he is clearly attuned to the current political climate. His campaign website is littered with police reform buzzwords, describing him as “a trusted face of law enforcement in Central Florida, where crime has decreased, use of force is down and deputy accountability is the standard.”
Given that public posturing, it would seem clear that his own deadly use of force is highly relevant to his re-election bid. Yet despite the fact that Mina has led the two largest law-enforcement agencies in the Orlando area for more than five years, he has never spoken publicly about the killing. Nor has he been asked to by any local media outlets. And Joseph Dungee’s mother, Felicia Dungee, told The Appeal that Mina has never talked to her about why he killed her son that day.
“I asked for an investigation for excessive force, but they said he was innocent,” Dungee told The Appeal. “So I didn’t know what else to do. What else can you do, you know?”
Mina’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal. Neither did the Orlando Police Department or the Orange County sheriff’s office.
Felicia Dungee said her son had been a basketball-loving teen who had recently decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. In one photo Felicia posted online, a skinny, 11-year-old Joseph poses in a pink, blue, and yellow polo shirt as a rascally grin spreads across his face. Dungee said her son, who at the time of his death attended Oak Ridge High School less than 10 miles from Orlando International Airport, had been tricked into committing crimes by other members of her family.
Little public writing exists about what occurred that day except for a few hundred-word news briefs from the Orlando Sentinel. Per the Sentinel’s reporting, Mina had been working off-duty security at the Ale House that day. Someone told the cop that two armed men had entered the premises. It’s unclear what exactly happened next, but Mina said the two men refused to drop their weapons, so he fired at them. Allen was shot but survived. But Mina killed Joseph.
The only person who faced serious repercussions for the killing that day was Allen, who was charged with felony murder for causing the robbery that led to his accomplice’s death at the hands of an Orlando cop. The Sentinel wrote that Mina—who had been on the force for eight years at the time—was briefly suspended with pay while the Florida Department Law Enforcement investigated the shooting.
News clips from that time describe Central Florida as a place where cops were allowed to kill people with near-complete impunity. The Sentinel and WESH, the city’s NBC affiliate, analyzed the 81 police shootings that occurred from 1998 to 2004 across six counties—Osceola, Seminole, Lake, Brevard, Volusia, and Orange—and found that prosecutors did not charge a single officer in any case. (Only a handful of Florida officers have been charged for on-duty killings since 1991, after a botched trial in Miami wound up giving police officers even more rights to defend themselves in court.) But Sentinel reporters found multiple cases where evidence was deeply questionable and seemed to show officers outright lying. During one 1999 case in Orange County, officers claimed a woman named Yolanda Tascon was “backing over” cops with her car—but evidence showed officers shot Tascon through her windshield.
The story noted that more than 40 percent of the people shot by cops in Central Florida during that time period were unarmed. And, despite the fact what white residents greatly outnumbered Black residents, roughly half of the people shot by cops in that time period were Black, and 57 percent of the Black residents shot by cops were unarmed.
While Dungee’s name was briefly mentioned in that 2004 Sentinel investigation, Mina’s was not. The paper barely wrote about the incident again. According to available newspaper archives, the Sentinel mentioned the case briefly in 2014 when Mina was appointed police chief. The newspaper wrote that Mina made the “dangerous decision” with “steely composure.” The story doesn’t mention Joseph Dungee’s name. Mina was not interviewed.
“He didn’t have to answer for anything,” Felicia Dungee told The Appeal as she wept into the phone. “I would like at least for him to say if he was sorry, or if it was an accident, or something.”
Mina’s history may have received little scrutiny, but activists are still trying to hold him accountable.
On Aug. 5, a group of civil rights and activist organizations, including the groups Faith in Florida, the Florida Student Power Network, and Organize Florida, held a virtual press conference to demand, in their words, “radical change” from Mina and the rest of the candidates running against him for sheriff.
During the press conference, Sheena Rolle, an activist with Faith in Florida, cited a series of staggering statistics culled from the Mapping Police Violence research collaborative, a project created by Campaign Zero, an anti-police-brutality nonprofit. According to the collaborative, the Orlando police shot 18 people from 2013 to 2019—10.8 people for every million residents. The latter number is a higher figure than for all but three police departments in the U.S. during that time frame. (That number includes Omar Mateen, whom Orlando police killed after he committed the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.)
In 2018, the last year that Mina ran the Orlando Police Department, the Campaign Zero statistics show that more than half the department’s arrests were for low-level offenses, and only 5 percent of arrests were for so-called serious violent offenses, which include murder, rape, aggravated assault, and a small number of other charges. The department disproportionately arrested people of color: Although Black residents make up only 25 percent of the Orlando population, 66 percent of those arrested for low-level offenses in 2018 were Black. And, despite the fact that Black and white people use drugs at roughly equal rates, 60 percent of those arrested for drug offenses in 2018 were Black.
In 2019, the first full year that Mina ran the Orange County sheriff’s office, his new department did not fare that much better. Black residents make up 23 percent of Orange County, but they constituted 47 percent of those arrested for low-level crimes and 48 percent of all drug arrests made by the sheriff’s office.
In a high-profile incident in June, 21-year-old Khadija Bezzaz had been driving alongside a caravan of Floyd protesters with her hazard lights flashing when Deputy Christopher Moore rolled up to her window and—with Bezzaz’s cell phone camera and his own body-worn camera rolling—smashed Bezzaz’s driver’s-side window and ripped her out of the car as she screamed. In press statements after the incident, Mina claimed that the deputy had felt Bezzaz’s car “lurch forward” before he attacked.
Bezzaz spoke at a press event last week and accused both Mina and Moore of lying about what happened.
“Within 30 seconds of the body cam footage, he was breaking the glass and trying to enter my car,” Bezzaz told reporters. She added: “They lied in the police report and said I had rolled the window onto his arm.” She said she “didn’t even have time to put my car in park” and that she now has a “permanent cut on my lip thanks to Christopher Moore.”
While Bezzaz was not charged in the incident, Mina did not discipline Moore and instead has said that the deputy “followed protocol.”
Mina’s critics describe him as an adept politician who successfully used the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre to paint himself as a tough, competent leader who knows how to protect people in a crisis. In reality, many activists believe Mina is instead a well-trained member of Orlando’s longstanding Democratic political machine. Mayor Buddy Dyer, who appointed Mina police chief in 2014, has held office since 2003, save for a brief period in 2005 when he was suspended amid allegations that he’d committed absentee-ballot fraud.
Mina also for years served as staff director for former Police Chief Val Demings, who led the department from 2007 to 2011 before eventually winning a congressional race in 2016. Demings made former Vice President Joe Biden’s short list for vice presidential candidates, despite, as Politico wrote last month, her own long history of defending violent cops. (In perhaps the most egregious case, Politico wrote that Demings refused to discipline an officer who broke an 84-year-old World War II veteran’s neck after hip-checking the man into the ground.)
Mina then served as the police department’s patrol services bureau commander while Demings’s replacement, Paul Rooney, ran the department until his abrupt retirement in February 2014. Months later, news reporters revealed that Rooney had been one of multiple Orlando cops caught driving around town ogling women’s breasts in what officers crudely referred to as “milk runs.” Dyer then appointed Mina to replace Rooney.
Activists note, for example, that Mina was able to dodge significant damage to his legacy after both investigative reporters and the U.S. Department of Justice critiqued aspects of the police department’s Pulse shooting response. (In 2018, more than two dozen Pulse survivors filed a lawsuit that accused 31 Orlando cops and the city of taking too long to subdue Mateen, but a federal judge dismissed the complaint.)
In 2018, Demings’s husband, Jerry Demings, stepped down as Orange County sheriff to run for Orange County mayor. Mina easily won a little-watched special election that year to replace him. In July 2020, after the Floyd uprisings began, the Orange County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 93 rescinded its endorsement of Mina after he instituted new policies forcing deputies to intervene if they see other cops committing acts of brutality. (Reformers have largely supported defense attorney Andrew Darling’s campaign, but Darling severely lags behind Mina in fundraising.)
David Caicedo, co-director of the Florida Student Power Network, told The Appeal that Mina is a skilled politician who “plays different cards when it’s convenient for him” depending on the crowd he’s speaking to.
“These latest protests have exposed Mina’s inability to hold police officers accountable over and over again,” Caicedo said. “We’ve seen police in Orlando body-slamming, pepper-spraying, threatening, and antagonizing peaceful protesters.”
Caicedo, whose organization has not endorsed a candidate in the race, expressed shock upon hearing that Mina himself had shot a child to death in 1999.
“These police departments hide information and collude to keep information hidden,” he said. “I think this speaks to the dangers of police unions at this moment, especially here in Florida.”
On July 31, the Sentinel endorsed Mina’s re-election campaign, writing that he was “sincere about reforming police work” and had a “long record of service and integrity.”
The Sentinel’s endorsement, however, fails to mention the paper’s own reporting on Joseph Dungee’s death.
Felicia Dungee said she still knows very little about her son’s case. According to news reports and available court records, Allen, the man who accompanied her son that day, was charged with first-degree murder, felony robbery, assault or battery on a law enforcement officer, and aiding or abetting a crime after his arrest that day. Even though Mina was the one who killed Joseph, Allen was charged with the murder, as Florida is one of a number of states where prosecutors can charge people with murder simply for taking part in crimes where someone else was killed. But Allen’s charges were mysteriously dropped in 2004—a rare instance for a first-degree murder case. (Allen’s lawyer in the case, Francis Blankner, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Despite the decades that have passed, Felicia Dungee’s wounds are still fresh. She wept as she said the Orlando Police Department never returned her son’s items to the family. She said she’s still waiting to get those personal belongings back, and for Mina, the most powerful law-enforcement agent in the city, to explain why he killed her son. The teen’s obituary said he died the day after the shooting and left four brothers and sisters behind.
“His life wasn’t even in danger,” Dungee said of Mina through tears. Of her son she added: “He really was a good kid.”