Miami-Dade wants state to investigate police-involved shootings



The Miami-Dade Police Department should end its long-standing practice of investigating its own police-involved shootings and the deaths of people in custody and turn those over to the state, county Mayor Carlos Gimenez has told the department’s chief.

In a memo to Police Director J.D. Patterson late this week, Gimenez said handing the investigations over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would “strengthen” community trust in the department. The four-page memo also said the mayor had preliminary conversations with the FDLE, and directed Patterson to discuss the transfer with the state police agency.

“It is my strong opinion that a thorough and expeditious investigation by an independent agency which leads to a conclusion statement will strengthen the community’s trust of such a process, and faith that the investigation of any event that may be unjustified would reach an appropriate conclusion,” wrote Gimenez.

Even if an investigation conducted by the police department is above board, the mayor told the Herald on Friday that “people shouldn’t be investigating themselves,” and that letting the FDLE handle the investigations “will be viewed as more objective. The goal is to be more objective, to have the confidence of the people.”

Patterson said Friday that he wasn’t yet on board with the plan, “but if we can come out of it with a better product, I’m for it.”

The director said he had no problem with how uses of deadly force by officers are currently investigated, but conceded that transferring the process to the FDLE would free up many of his officers for other assignments. Patterson said if the plan goes forward no officers would be moved, and the transfer of services would come at no cost to the department.

Miami-Dade had 17 police-involved shootings in 2013, and two in-custody deaths. Of those, investigations have been completed in six and passed on to the state attorney. Patterson said Miami-Dade also conducts investigations into officer-involved shootings in other smaller police departments in the county that request it.

Currently, police-involved uses of deadly force are investigated by members of a senior homicide squad, an assistant state attorney, a police union attorney and a member of police internal affairs. When the investigation is complete the results are passed along to the state attorney’s office, which determines whether there was any criminal wrongdoing by the officer involved.

The FDLE has experience handling police-involved shootings. Currently the state agency investigates the use of deadly force by officers at more than 20 police departments, including the Escambia and Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Orlando Police Department, according to FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.

Plessinger wouldn’t speak specifically about Miami-Dade’s plans because there is no agreement in place yet. However, she said FDLE’s role would be very specific.

“Our scope is very narrow, to determine whether a crime was committed. Then we turn it over to the state attorney, who makes the final determination,” Plessinger said.

Though most internal investigations of officer-involved shootings are completed in a matter of months, more complex cases — such as the high-profile 2011 Memorial Day shooting of Raymond Herisse on Miami Beach — can take much longer. Miami Beach Police Spokesman Sgt. Bobby Hernandez said his department only recently passed its findings on the Memorial Day shooting to the state attorney.

“Some of them are complicated,” he said.

Nathaniel Wilcox, director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, has been critical of the handling of police shootings in the past. His group was instrumental in the firing of former Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito, who ran the department during a seven-month run that began in July 2010, when Miami police shot and killed seven inner-city black men.

Wilcox met with Patterson on Friday morning, and has a meeting scheduled with Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa early next week. The topic: The Dec. 10 shooting death of Adrian Montesano, who stormed a drugstore, stole a patrol car, and led police on a wild cross-county chase before being gunned down in a wild shootout involving Hialeah, Miami-Dade and Miami police, in which three officers were also shot.

Wilcox said Friday that having the FDLE take over county police-shooting investigations is a good start, but added he'd prefer it go further: having civilians investigate when police use deadly force.

“I think as many eyes as possible that can look into the issue outside the county, would give it a better chance of being done the right way,” Wilcox said. “We prefer something other than a policing agency — they favor their ‘brothers.’ 

In an email Friday, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she’s been engaged in coversations with police chiefs throughout the county on investigative procedures and timeliness in response to deadly-force incidents.

“I believe that anything increasing the transparency and timeliness of these important investigations, which also boosts the public’s confidence in our police, should be pursued as a goal,” she said.

The mayor’s latest initiative comes on the heels of an internal backlash last summer when Gimenez scaled back the police department’s public-corruption unit. Eighteen sworn and civilian employees were transferred to other units, including 10 detectives. Four detectives were transferred to the FBI’s anti-corruption task force.

John Rivera, head of the county’s Police Benevolent Association and a political foe of the mayor’s, said the dismantling of the public-corruption unit was payback by the mayor for the unit’s look into absentee ballot fraud. That probe, which began in the summer of 2012, netted the arrest of a ballot broker who had been seen entering Gimenez’s Hialeah campaign office. The mayor denied any wrongdoing, and said the cutbacks came about after the FBI approached him seeking more cooperation on investigations.

Rivera said moving police-shooting investigations to the FDLE was just another attempt to gut the department by the mayor, “who has a personal vendetta after the voter fraud.”

“When have we had a problem with police shootings?” Rivera asked. “He’s creating a scenario that doesn’t exist. We should be looking at contract bids like water and sewer. That’s the stuff that needs greater transparency and should be a bigger priority.”

The mayor said staffing at the police department would not be cut by passing police shootings investigations to the state. “That’s totally untrue,” he said.

Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said giving investigative authority to the FDLE is a better alternative than county officers policing their own, but only if the FDLE has the resources and staffing to do the job.

“It’s noteworthy,” said Simon. “I think the mayor is to be applauded for looking for alternatives to the status quo.”

Gimenez said resources shouldn’t be an issue.

“We have actually offered FDLE, if they don’t have the resources, we can give them some investigators under their auspices,” he said.

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