Justice Department finds Miami Police used excessive force in shootings

07/09/2013 2:00 PM

07/10/2013 8:36 AM

For the first time, a federal judge will monitor the Miami Police Department to enforce sweeping institutional changes involving use of force, after the U.S. Justice Department Tuesday found that several police-involved shootings were unjustified during a four-year period.

The Justice Department took the unprecedented step after reviewing 33 police shootings of individuals — including seven black men killed in the inner city — as part of a lengthy civil rights investigation of Miami police practices from 2008 through 2011.

Federal officials agreed with the police department’s own findings that three of the 33 shootings were “unjustified,” but concluded that an unspecified number of others involved excessive force, too, and “may have resulted from tactical and training deficiencies,” said the letter of findings, signed by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez.

Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said the Justice findings serve a “dual goal of shining a light on past wrongs and — more importantly — setting a clear course for the future that will assure the residents of the city of Miami that this type of behavior will not be repeated in our city.’’

Former Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito, who was in charge during much of the timeframe in question, bristled at the findings, saying they failed to reflect the realities of policing high-crime areas of the inner-city.

“Whoever did this probe has very little understanding of what police officers do on a daily basis,” he said, defending the decisions he made to aggressively target crime hot-spots with plainclothes detectives — some of whom shot people.

But U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson hailed the report as an embarrassing wake-up call that city leaders need to take seriously.

“They described a very dysfunctional police department, a police department that is ingrained in excessive and deadly force,” said Wilson, who had called for federal authorities to delve into Miami police practices. “I’m ashamed of what we have been dealing with.”

Justice, which launched the investigation in November 2011, found that the 1,100-officer department engaged in an unconstitutional “pattern or practice’’ of excessive use of force. Justice also found that a number of practices, including improper actions by specialized units and “egregious’’ delays and major deficiencies in deadly-force investigations, contributed to the problem.

No officers were identified in the report. Justice officials indicated that certain officers implicated in the unjustified shootings are being investigated by federal or state authorities for potential criminal wrongdoing. However, officers in five of the seven fatal-shooting cases have been cleared by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

Now, federal authorities will review the civil rights violations with top police officials to draw up a list of reforms that will be overseen by a federal judge in Miami. The judicial review, which could last more than two years, is akin to a court-enforced decree.

When the Justice Department opened a similar civil rights investigation into Miami police shootings more than a decade ago, federal officials did not find a “pattern or practice’’ of excessive force, but uncovered “serious deficiencies” in the police department’s investigations. Federal officials later found that the department had made “dramatic improvements” — including a 20-month period between 2002 and 2004 when no police officer discharged his firearm.

That probe was closed in 2006 without a formal agreement or further review.

On Tuesday, Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, said such a lack of continuing oversight won’t happen again.

“We’re disappointed to find that the problem is back,” Austin said. “Whatever reforms are put in place have to put in place regardless of who is in charge of the city’s police department. Now there will be a court-enforcement action that the Justice Department will monitor.”

Justice’s findings noted that the police department did not provide close supervision or hold officers accountable for their actions by failing to complete thorough, objective and timely investigations of officer-involved shootings. For a significant number of the shootings, including one that occurred in 2008, the department has not reached a conclusion internally as to whether the firearm discharge was lawful and within policy.

Federal authorities found that the department’s failure to quickly and thoroughly investigate officer-involved shootings undermined accountability, noting that several investigations remained open for more than three years.

They also noted that seven Miami officers were involved in one-third of the shootings, even as the department’s investigations into them continued to be “egregiously delayed.’’

The Justice Department’s investigation involved an in-depth review of thousands of documents, including written policies and procedures, training materials, internal reports, photographs, video and audio recordings, and investigative files.

Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado called the letter from the Justice Department “too harsh.”

”It talks about the past as if it were the present,” he said. “We’ve put a lot of changes in place.’’

Among them: Police Chief Manuel Orosa’s dismantling of the plainclothes tactical teams whose members were responsible for many of the shootings. Orosa also modified the department’s procedures for investigating police-involved shootings. A special team of homicide investigators, instead of Internal Affairs, now handles those cases.

Still, Regalado said court oversight would be good for the city. “A court mandate will guarantee that protocols are in place for the future,” he said.

Orosa, who Justice Department officials credited with instituting some reforms, said in a statement that he welcomed “this long-awaited response” and looks forward to negotiating an agreement with federal authorities.

Orosa pointed out that most of the shootings had taken place under former Chief Exposito, and added that he was thankful to the Justice Department for acknowledging “a significant decrease in police-involved shootings in 2012.” There were four.

In January, the police chief fired officer Reynaldo Goyos, who fatally shot a 28-year-old unarmed man, Travis McNeil, in 2011. The police department’s Firearms Review Board later found he had used “unjustified deadly force.”

His mother Sheila told CBS4 the DOJ report comes “too little, too late” for her son.

“We need to weed out those officers who don’t follow policy and procedures and take it on themselves to be judge, jury, and executioner,” she said.

Exposito, long defiant about the legacy of his tenure as top cop, criticized the findings. He pointed out that during two of the years covered in the report, the department was run by former Chief John Timoney.

Exposito reserved most of his ire for the report’s scathing criticism of the tactical units, which included the heavily armed SWAT team and Exposito’s creation, the Tactical Robbery Unit, which featured plainclothes detectives in unmarked cars targeting criminals in high-crime areas.

The beefing up of tactical units was a hallmark of Exposito’s term, a priority he continues to defend. After he was fired, in late 2011, Orosa scaled back the units, returning many of the detectives to the patrol ranks.

Exposito insisted that his staff properly vetted tactical unit candidates, training them well and outlining sound tactical plans — all points of criticism in the Justice Department report. Those detectives, by the nature of their assignments, were bound to engage in more shootings than uniformed cops, he said.

Miami Fraternal Order of Police President Javier Ortiz said the union agreed with some of the Justice Department's findings. Chief among them: that the Miami Police Department has training deficiencies and lacks supervisors on the street.

But overall, Ortiz wrote in a statement, "there is clearly a disconnect between the USDOJ and the reality of what our Miami police officers confront on a daily basis." Ortiz said he was troubled that the report painted the department as run like "the wild, wild west."

Several community leaders who had called for the federal review praised the Justice Department report.

Rep. Wilson called the findings “terrible” for the city, but said she is hopeful that the community and the police department can work with the judge to reform the department’s problematic “culture.’’

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said he was “not surprised” by Justice’s findings.

“People’s rights have been violated and lives have been unjustly taken,” Simon wrote in a statement, calling for a follow-up investigation into the police officers involved in the fatal shootings.

“Finding out whether there are officers who can be held responsible is necessary if the people’s trust in the police who are sworn to protect them is going to be restored,” he wrote.

Miami Herald news partner CBS4 contributed to this report.

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