Spurred by the flashpoint of Ferguson, Missouri, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has brought 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.
But the attorney general has also come to town just as the Justice Department and the Miami Police Department are finalizing 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.
Lynch declined to comment Thursday about the imminent agreement during a visit to the Doral Police Department, saying only that “we’re very happy with our working relationship with the city of Miami.”
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.
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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.
“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.
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 Herald on Thursday that she was given a heads-up about the long-awaited settlement, calling it a “step in the right direction. … 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 Democratic 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 1,300-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. 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. In September, 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.
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.
Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed on Aug. 9, 2014, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. The shooting triggered protests for weeks but led to no criminal prosecution. On Wednesday, the Justice Department sued Ferguson’s police department, claiming “ongoing and pervasive” civil-rights violations.
In the smoldering aftermath of Ferguson, Lynch launched her first community policing tour to eight American cities last year. She now plans to visit six U.S. cities, focusing initially 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.
On Friday, she is planning several stops, including meeting with “student peace ambassadors” at Booker T. Washington High School in the historic Overtown neighborhood.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said bridging the police-citizen divide “is critical to keeping us safe. … Building community trust with police is the issue of our times.”