Spurred by the flashpoint of Ferguson, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch is bringing her “community policing tour” to Miami to laud local law enforcement agencies for mending frayed relations with neighborhoods that have been seething for years over police-involved shootings and rampant gun violence.
During her two-day visit, Lynch plans to make a half-dozen stops, including dropping by the Doral Police Department on Thursday and meeting with “peace ambassadors” at Booker T. Washington High School in the historic Overtown neighborhood on Friday.
But the attorney general is also coming to town as the Justice Department and the Miami Police Department finalize the settlement of a civil rights case over officers' use of force in 33 shootings — including seven black men killed in the inner city — between 2008 and 2011.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said the details of a “tentative settlement” are in place. He said the agreement — prompted by the Justice Department’s crackdown in 2013 — would establish an independent monitor to oversee police department reforms on internal investigations of officer-involved shootings and an expiration date for federal oversight that could last up to three years. Lawyers for the city were still working to finalize the draft of the settlement, which must ultimately be approved by the Miami City Commission before it is implemented.
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“I think it's something that gives closure to one of the most difficult times that we had in our police department,” Regalado told the Miami Herald on Wednesday.
Regalado was referring to the tumultuous period six years ago, when aggressive Miami law enforcement tactics contributed to a number of police-involved shootings, some of which involved unarmed men. Community outrage and pressure led the mayor and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson to request a federal review into whether the city’s police department violated the civil rights of shooting victims. The Justice Department launched its probe in November 2011.
Wilson told the Miami Herald on Thursday that she was given a heads-up about the imminent settlement, calling it a “step in the right direction.”
“I think it’s good news that they have come to an agreement,” the Miami Democrat said. “If it’s close to what I’ve seen [proposed] in the past, I think it will work.”
Wilson said her hope is that the Miami Police Department will strive for a “consistency of good policing and training practices.” She also said the department must hire officers that “reflect the community,” calling for more African-American officers to patrol the black neighborhoods.
But the congresswoman, whose northwest Miami-Dade district has been terrorized by gun violence, said her main goal is to help police slow the rising death toll of youths in her community, where “black boys are killing each other.”
The Justice Department issued its harsh findings about the Miami Police Department in July 2013. Investigators found after reviewing 33 Miami police shootings of individuals that three were “unjustified” and an unspecified number of others involved excessive force that “may have resulted from tactical and training deficiencies.”
Justice officials concluded that the city’s 1,100-officer department engaged in an unconstitutional “pattern or practice” of excessive use of force. It marked the second time that the feds had cracked down on Miami police for questionable officer-involved shootings, which dated back more than a decade.
In the latest complaint, Justice found improper actions by specialized and undercover units along with “egregious” delays and major deficiencies in deadly-force investigations. (Since then, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has taken over the role of investigating such shootings involving the Miami and Miami-Dade police departments.)
No officers were identified in Justice’s findings. Almost all of the officers involved in the seven fatal shootings of black men have been cleared by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.
Following Justice’s investigative findings, the process of negotiating a settlement was itself difficult. City attorneys argued this summer that they had been “singled out” for disparate treatment. At times, the two sides stopped speaking altogether. In September, following a thaw in relations, Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said the idea that federal authorities were qualified to opine on urban policing methods was “ludicrous.”
Llanes declined to comment on the pending settlement.
Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez did not provide a working copy of the settlement upon request on Wednesday. But a working draft from April 2015 obtained by the Miami Herald showed the settlement would run just three years from start to finish. That agreement included requirements that the city place special controls on how tactical units are used and respond promptly to issues before a voter-created civilian police oversight board.
The draft also laid out a plan in which Justice Department employees would monitor Miami police, as opposed to an independent judge, as was initially considered. Justice would have to foot the bill, including possibly retaining a consultant.
That version included language that clarified the city did not admit to or agree with the Justice’s findings from July 2013.
The draft settlement broadly set the goals of “ensuring that police services are delivered to the people of the City of Miami in a manner that fully complies with the Constitution and laws of the United States, effectively ensures public and officer safety, and promotes public confidence in [the Miami Police Department] and its officers.”
The draft also noted: “The United States recognizes that MPD is committed to these goals and has already taken steps to better effectuate them.”
Justice officials issued their rebuke of the city’s police department a little over a year before a racially tainted police shooting in Missouri would jolt the nation and federal government into an explosive debate on law enforcement’s treatment of black people suspected of committing crimes. The incident also stirred up an nationwide movement: “Black Lives Matter.”
Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed on Aug. 9, 2014, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. The shooting triggered protests for weeks. That November, the St. Louis County prosecutor announced that a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, which sparked more protests. In March 2015, the Justice Department ordered Ferguson to overhaul its criminal justice system, declaring that the city had engaged in constitutional violations. But after nearly a year of negotiations that led to a proposed settlement, the Ferguson City Council rejected the deal — and on Wednesday, Justice sued its police department claiming “ongoing and pervasive” civil rights violations.
“The residents of Ferguson have waited nearly a year for the city to adopt an agreement that would protect their rights and keep them safe,” Lynch, the attorney general, said on Wednesday, on the eve of her visit to Miami. “They have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer.”
Last summer, Lynhch launched her first tour to eight American cities to spread the word. She now plans to visit six U.S. cities, focusing first on Miami to spotlight local police departments that are “building trust and legitimacy” in their communities. She’s singling out the Doral, Miami and Miami-Dade departments
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, South Florida’s most powerful federal law enforcement official, said bridging the police-citizen divide “is critical to keeping us safe.”
Said Ferrer: “Building community trust with police is the issue of our times.”