Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel, the 12-year-old agency established to investigate complaints of police misconduct, has some massive internal problems of its own.
The volunteer panel is in turmoil, rocked by internal power struggles and questionable record keeping. Some describe their meetings as “wars,” and volatile arguments are called “public lynchings.”
Accusations of racism and reverse-racism abound from the group whose mission it is to review and evaluate sensitive and, at times, fatal police encounters largely with minority victims who often allege racism.
“The CIP is supposed to stop bad cops from becoming terrors in our communities,” said Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon. “Right now, it’s a dysfunctional body.”
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The infighting has raised serious concerns about the CIP’s ability to fulfill its charge. The panel once billed as a national model for citizen oversight was the first board of its kind in Florida to have subpoena power. It was designed to investigate police complaints, present its finding at public hearings, then recommend to the city manager and police chief what action, if any, should be taken.
Community leaders and activists believed the CIP would command respect from the community and police. Instead, critics say it has lost much of its credibility.
Former City Commissioner Richard Dunn, an inaugural CIP panel member, said he has not seen the board working at full capabilities in years, calling it “watered down.”
“I think it got away from its originally calling,” he said.
Voters in 2001 overwhelmingly approved creating the panel in response to community tension after a spate of fatal shootings of black men and the indictment of 13 officers accused of planting guns on suspects in so-called “throw-down cases,” then covering up the questionable shootings.
Nine officers were convicted, four acquitted.
And the Elián González controversy brought about multi-ethnic support for oversight of Miami’s police force. Miami’s Cuban-American community raised complaints about the police’s rough treatment of those who protested the seizure of Elián from his Little Havana home in 2000.
Early on, the board took on some high-profile cases. In 2003, it examined the department's response to protests during the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit. It found then-Chief John Timoney at fault for his use for free of a Lexus SUV.
Today, the 13-member board with an annual budget of $564,000, is mired in controversy. There are calls to fire the newly hired executive director Cristina Beamud and the panel’s long-time independent counsel Charles Mays.
A coalition of community-based groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (P.U.L.S.E.) accuse Mays of attempting to usurp the executive director’s duties, while providing the panel with questionable legal opinions in an effort to stall certain cases.
Beamud’s detractors say she has pushed out African-American employees during her four months at the helm.
“I’m here to tell you, she’s a racist,” said panel member and attorney Michelle Delancy, referring to Beamud at a March meeting. Delancy later backtracked, saying the word racist was perhaps too strong in describing Beamud.
“I take back calling her a racist,” she said. “It was in the heat of the moment. I think she has racial issues. All the black people are gone after her arrival, and the one black man left, Mr. Mays, they’re trying to get rid of him too.”
Since Beamud took over in December, two of the agency’s three investigators left.
Investigator Nikko Evans resigned, and Beamud fired Shewanda Hall, a seven-year veteran investigator, for what Beamud said was insubordination. An administrative assistant, Barbara Sweet also resigned after filing a discrimination complaint.
All three are African-American.
Neither Hall nor Evans could be reached for comment. Sweet declined to speak about her complaint, which the city found to be unsubstantiated.
Sweet had attached ripped-up post-it notes that she said she retrieved from Beamud’s office trash. One blue post-it note was taped together and read “black people are like animals.” Another contained the n-word. The city investigation found the notes did not match Beamud’s handwriting.
Miami Assistant City Attorney Diana Vizcaino would not allow Beamud to answer questions from a Miami Herald reporter about the three women and the conditions under which they left.
“I’m not a racist,” said Beamud. “This is just a distraction. It is not a productive use of time.”
Beamud joined the CIP in December with an impressive legal and law enforcement background. The hiring committee recommended her as the ideal candidate for the $125,000 a year position.
A police officer in Rochester New York, Beamud went on to become an attorney and legal adviser to the Cambridge, Massachussetts police department. Her most recent job before moving to Miami was executive director of Atlanta’s Citizen Review Board.
Twice, a panel majority voted to have Beamud fired. Both times they were instructed that the city manager has the final say on terminating city employees.
And City Manager Daniel Alfonso refused to enter the fray, saying he wouldn’t comment on the situation.
Suggestions that the personnel shake-up is about race, is simply untrue said Daniel Suarez, a panel member.
“The director is cleaning house. She’s doing a great job” he said. “She had to make a decisions that the panel won’t always be happy with. That’s her job.”
The issue, her backers say, is that she’s an outsider coming in and asserting herself in her new role.
Trying to fire her is reverse racism, said Horacio Aguirre, a CIP panel member.
“This isn’t traditional racism where white folks lynch black folks. This was the racism of the lynching of a white woman,” he said at a March meeting.
Aguirre said he believes Mays, the panel’s attorney, orchestrated the firing attempt with his supporters on the panel - a claim that Mays denies.
In a four-page letter to the city commission dated April 23rd, the coalition of community organizations that includes the ACLU and NAACP, outlined their grievances with Mays.
They say Mays instructed CIP investigators to ignore evidence that favored complainants, ignored requests to investigate the culture of the police department after fatal shootings and routinely gives incorrect legal advice to the panel.
Mays said he and the coalition often disagree.
“I would like to see intelligent dialogue and civil discourse take place as opposed to unfounded personal attacks,” he said.
Meanwhile, the CIP has some 50 open cases to review, the oldest dating back to 2009. Only one investigator remains to examine the cases.
Beamud said the agency’s record keeping is so shoddy that she cannot say how many of the cases have surpassed the CIP’s time frame for investigations. According to the agency’s own rules, investigations are to be completed within 30 days after internal affairs complete its probe or 120 days after the CIP launches its own review.
Among the cases languishing are those of six young men killed by Miami police from 2010 to 2011. The CIP closed two of the cases - more than a year past its own investigative deadlines.
“We want the CIP to step up to the plate and do their job,” said Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of P.U.L.S.E. “Those very important case where people are dying, they’re falling short on it.”
There is also concern that the group is ignoring basic housekeeping issues, like making sure new board members are appointed when a current member’s six-year term expires.
At least two sitting panel members terms have expired, one since 2008.
If substantial changes are not made to quash the fighting and internal issues, the future of the CIP is bleak, said Mayor Tomás Regalado, who was a sitting commissioner when the board was created.
Regalado said he and the late Commisisoner Arthur Teele fought to ensure the community would have recourse through the CIP when residents and visitors felt they have been mistreated by police.
“Instead of the bickering, they need to help the people,” he said. “There are many people who have issues with the police and they’re not being helped.”