On this no one seems to disagree: When a civilian is shot, killed or seriously hurt, the officers involved should not be investigated by their own local police departments. The good news is that outside investigations of these incidents are slowly becoming the norm in Florida. It is a change we should welcome and one that needs our support.
Just a few years ago at the largest police departments in Miami-Dade, when a civilian was shot or killed, officers from that same department handled evidence collection, interviewed witnesses and worked with the state attorney’s office. The apparent conflict of interest in this arrangement — an organization investigating its own — has made it harder for departments to continue it, especially under the intensifying spotlight cast on police use of force in the last few years. Whether departments can be fair and diligent in investigating their own or not, perception matters.
Locally, the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are outside agencies that departments can turn to. Most small cities have long had arrangements with the county because in many cases they are too small to have a homicide division, if they have a police department at all. Meanwhile, the largest police departments, the ones with the capacity to investigate themselves, mostly did so. That is, until recently.
Before this year, the city of Miami Beach investigated its own police-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents. Miami-Dade County now does them under an agreement reached in late 2015. Similarly, in 2014 the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County itself agreed to have FDLE conduct their officer investigations. Within the last few years FDLE has also taken on several other cities in Miami-Dade, including the city of Miami Gardens.
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The shift has meant that in Miami-Dade, Hialeah, North Miami Beach and North Miami are the only cities lacking a formal agreement with the county or FDLE to handle police-shooting cases.
When we look statewide, handling outside investigations for police departments on use of force is becoming an important part of FDLE’s mission. Over the last five years, the number of officer-involved shooting cases it handled increased by 117 percent and by 31 percent last year alone. (To be clear, the increase is from a shift toward outside investigation not an increase in shootings.) FDLE is now at 132 such agreements and counting.
FDLE lost investigative capacity because of budget cuts during the economic downturn and has yet to recover. From 2008 to 2011, FDLE reports losing 16 percent of sworn investigative positions and 29 percent of intelligence analyst support positions. The calls from local law enforcement, however, keep coming.
That’s why in September FDLE requested an additional $3.4 million from the Legislature from next year’s budget (and $2.4 million thereafter) to restore investigative staffing for officer-involved shootings and use-of-force investigations. If funded, it would support 26 full-time agents and analysts working on such cases.
Florida’s budget surplus is projected to be $635 million. So how much of FDLE’s requested $3.4 million did Gov. Scott include in his proposed budget? Zero.
When I pressed the Governor’s Office on this failure in a recent committee hearing, the response was to cite the 17 additional FDLE investigative positions funded in last year’s budget to handle investigations into prisoner deaths at the Department of Corrections. This is a perplexing position. The governor’s fatigue with prison reform is no excuse to shirk our responsibilities on outside investigation of local police use of force.
That local police departments are, by and large, getting out of the business of investigating themselves is commendable. That progress calls for a response from the Legislature. The integrity of our justice system demands that we prioritize restoring the state’s investigative capacity over police-involved shootings and use of force incidents.
Jose Javier Rodriguez, of Miami, represents District 112 in the Florida House of Representatives.