MIAMI – After a sweeping investigation looking into the law enforcement patterns and practices of the Miami Police Department (MPD) that lasted a year and a half, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released its findings Tuesday. South Floridians found them damning.
“We find that MPD engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force with respect to firearms discharges in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Section 14141,” wrote U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez.
The federal probe said Miami officers shot at individuals intentionally 33 different times between 2008 and 2011.
That figure came from documentation in MPD records but the DOJ report indicated that those records were often
inadequate, largely because they were not often completed and filed in a timely fashion. Subsequently, the DOJ observed, neither close supervision nor ensuring accountability of specific officers in police-involved shootings was done by the department.
“Miami has to reform deadly force,” said Roy L. Austin Jr, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the DOJ’s Civil Rights
Investigators reviewed around 17,000 documents, including forensic reports, transcripts, training manuals, investigative reports, policies and procedures. The department also conducted lengthy interviews with Miami police personnel at various levels of administration and in different departments, as well as members of the
The DOJ launched the investigation in November 2011 in response to widespread public outcry over an outburst of police violence that resulted in the deaths of seven black men in Miami between summer 2010 and winter 2011.
Overall, the DOJ report focused on four fundamental findings. The first is that, out of the 33 documented officer-involved shootings between 2008 and 2011, MPD found three cases of unjustified use of force.
It was also revealed that “MPD officers routinely employ poor tactics.” The third finding looked at “improper actions by specialized units,” including the chilling revelation that, of 17 police shootings in 2010 and 2011, nine “involved an officer from a specialized unit.”
Bradford Brown of the Miami-Dade NAACP said that members of the specialized units, who typically use unmarked police cars and do not wear the highly visible dark navy blue uniform of MPD, were “overemphasized and under-supervised.”
Finally, the DOJ report said that MPD investigations of police-involved shootings are “inadequate.” This it attributes to “unreasonable delays” in delivering the outcome) of police shootings. Additionally, failure to properly analyze relevant information “to determine whether a shooting is justified” also adversely impacted investigations.
This is not the first time that the Civil Rights
Division of the DOJ has investigated the MPD. The most recent time prior to this
`investigation was about a decade ago when the federal authorities investigated the department from 2002 to 2006. Austin said at the time of the previous investigation many changes were made and progress appeared to be unfolding.
Those steps appear to have been either short-lived or not rooted in reality. “It is disturbing to me,” said Austin, that the issues his office saw back then still remain.
Still, Austin and Wilfredo Ferrer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, whose office worked with the DOJ during the investigation, commended both current Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado for working productively with investigators by providing “full access.”
Ferrer also acknowledged community leaders and other elected officials such as U.S. Rep. Federica Wilson, D-Fla., who took the matter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about two years ago.
The report also found that only seven officers were involved in more than one-third of the shootings during the period investigated. Neither Austin nor Ferrer would name any of the officers, saying such information was out of the scope of their investigation and mandate. Their civil investigation, Austin said, was “distinct from criminal investigations. We intentionally do not make a determination” about individual officers. For that, he said, the cases must be handled under a separate determination by a separate unit at the DOJ.
Ferrer explained the difference between this investigation and a criminal investigation: “Criminal prosecution needs to find beyond a reasonable doubt [that there was] intent to violate the victim’s constitutional rights. A civil investigation has a different threshold” which is established via pattern and practice.
In short, Austin described the findings as “a narrow investigation [that] focused on the greatest problem.”
Next for MPD is a court-enforceable agreement which is expected to encompass procedures, training and other aspects for reform.
The entire matter will be presented to a federal judge after all parties involved have met and agreed to a sustainable performance plan.
Austin said a judge has not yet been assigned and that the court agreement would not be permanent. He did, however, offer as examples similar investigations and court-enforced agreements in New Orleans and Seattle, where the police departments were required to first meet conditions outlined in their respective agreements then sustain those reforms for two years.
In the case of Miami, “the agreement will be focused on what we found,” Austin said.
Austin and Wilson both said that not having a binding court-enforceable agreement was a primary factor that contributed to the ineffectiveness of the reforms pledged after the earlier DOJ investigation of MPD.
Orosa, who took over the MPD in December 2011 just weeks after the DOJ began its investigation, released a statement in which he
pointed out “a significant decrease in police-involved shootings in 2012.” He added that the “success in this area comes as a result of reforms established under my direction.”
Orosa said that the MPD submitted “a comprehensive report to DOJ” a year ago. Regarding the agreement necessary before the matter can be referred to a federal judge, Orosa wrote that the MPD “looks forward to the opportunity to clarify several components of the letter, as well as to labor intensely to negotiate an agreement with the Department of Justice.”
The DOJ report acknowledged that decrease and speculated that the department “may be capable of addressing the problem.”
“The police department could do better,” said Austin. “We are optimistic that it will continue.”
Wilson and others are more interested in accountability than optimism. “It appears that the DOJ is happy with the current chief,” she said. Wilson is pushing for reforming MPD’s institutional culture. “It shouldn’t matter who the police chief is. What should matter are the permanent policies and practices,” she said.
Jeanne Baker, chairwoman of the Police Practices Committee of the Greater Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, slammed Miami’s civilian oversight body. “The Justice Department was able to arrive at conclusions that the city’s internal mechanisms – including the Civilian Investigative Panel – have proven inadequate to find: that the city of Miami Police Department has been violating the constitutional rights of its citizens.”
Baker’s boss at the ACLU, Howard Simon, addressed accountability. “Ultimately, someone needs to be held responsible for the deaths and the violation of constitutional rights,” Simon said. “Now that the groundwork has been laid by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, we expect a follow-up investigation into the conduct of Miami Police Department officers who were