Police Practices

Police practices: DOJ settlement with Miami police is disappointment but with bit of silver lining

April 7, 2016

Jeanne Baker addresses a 2014 meeting of the Civilian Investigative Panel of Miami.

Jeanne Baker addresses a 2014 meeting of the Civilian Investigative Panel of Miami.

By Jeanne Baker

FIVE YEARS AGO, long before the police shootings in Ferguson, Staten Island, and other volatile communities in this country, the Police Practices Committee of the Greater Miami Chapter, working in coalition with the NAACP and other community organizations, called for official investigations into the fatal shootings of seven young black men by officers of the Miami Police Department (MPD) that had occurred in late 2010, early 2011. Our call went
out in two phases.

Initially, in February 2011, we set our sights on the Civilian Investigative Panel of Miami (CIP), urging it to do its job and open up direct investigations into each of the seven shootings as it was authorized to do by its founding documents. The CIP had been created a decade earlier by a citizen initiative led by the ACLU precisely in order to be able to conduct such investigations.

However, we soon found that under its then-leadership, the CIP seemed more interested in helping the city avoid liability than in truly investigating police misconduct. It did not take us long to realize that if we wanted genuine investigations of the seven shootings to take place, we would have to look elsewhere.

That “elsewhere” was the Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ had commenced an investigation into the MPD use-of-force practices in 2002, culminating in a “technical assistance letter” in 2006. But in 2010–11, the same problems had resurfaced: surely the DOJ would come roaring back to fix these problems once and for all.

On a hunch that the DOJ would be most responsive to a request from the city itself, we lobbied Mayor Tomás Regalado to ask the DOJ to return.

An August letter from the mayor, along with requests from Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, did the trick: in November 2011, the DOJ opened a pattern-and-practice investigation into the “excessive use of deadly force by firearms” by the MPD. Finally, we thought, the cavalry was coming.

Our optimism was unrequited. A year and three-quarters later, in July 2013, the DOJ issued a report finding that the MPD had, indeed, engaged in “excessive use of force with respect to firearm discharges,” but that report did not result in a court-authorized consent decree as we had hoped. Instead, after drawn-out negotiations, in February of this year, the DOJ entered into a settlement agreement with the city that set up nice-sounding goals but had practically no teeth to enforce them.

Moreover, the agreement is very disappointing in two other ways. First, while it calls for the creation of an advisory body to provide independent “community oversight” of its implementation, it fails to establish any system for selecting the members of that board. Worse yet, it hands the city an out, stating that the city “may use” its Community Relations Board (CRB) as the advisory body — a terrible idea given that the CRB is an arm of the city and thus not an independent representative of the community.

Second, the agreement fails to make any mention of the CIP; indeed, from reading it one would not know that the CIP even exists. To be sure, back in 2011 we would have been quite content with that omission. But starting then and continuing these past five years, we have been working to reform the CIP: to change its leadership and to reinvigorate its mission.

That effort has paid off. Now, in 2016, under a new executive director and a new panel chair and members (and the ouster of its previous independent counsel), the CIP is functioning better and better all the time and is an integral part of the policing scene in Miami. Now, omitting any mention of the CIP from the agreement seems not only inaccurate, it seems disrespectful.

On February 25, 2016, when the agreement was considered and ultimately approved by the Miami City Commission, several of us spoke up to complain about its disappointing elements. Ray Taseff, a former member of the Greater Miami Chapter board, opposed the agreement for failing to provide a court-backed consent decree to ensure its enforcement. Julia Dawson, a current member of the chapter board and a strong community activist, urged the city not to use the CRB as the civilian advisory body and proposed a pathway for creating a true community-based body to serve the advisory role. And I argued for adding into the agreement an explicit acknowledgment of the existence and ongoing importance of the CIP.

Which brings me to the bit of silver lining. In declining my request that they amend the agreement to mention the CIP expressly, four of the five commissioners expressed active support and respect for the new, improved CIP.
This is a welcome development.

In the near future, the commission will be considering proposed changes to the CIP’s founding documents designed to enhance the CIP’s independence. We are hopeful that the commissioners’ positive public comments about the CIP at their February 25 meeting will translate into votes of approval for those changes. Those public comments would not have been made but for the commissioners’ desire to approve the agreement without change. It ain’t much, but it is a silver lining.

Jeanne Baker is the chair of the Police Practices Committee and a board member of the ACLU of Florida Greater Miami Chapter.