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As feds probe police shootings, Miami department makes changes

One year after launching a civil-rights investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice has yet to announce its conclusions about the seven deadly police shootings of black men that rocked Miami in 2010 and 2011. But Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa has submitted an action plan designed to head off court-enforced reforms from the federal government.

Orosa’s nine-page memo proposes more than a dozen organizational and procedural changes to the Miami department, including:

• Creating a major case squad from within the homicide bureau to investigate police shootings and other high-profile cases;

• Establishing a three-member board to review police shootings, SWAT missions and car chases;

• Increasing the number of officers assigned to Internal Affairs, and having them analyze potential patterns in complaints from the public;

• Forbidding officers involved in a shooting from returning to duty without permission from the chief.

Orosa declined to be interviewed by The Miami Herald, saying he would not speak on the matter until the Justice Department issues recommendations from its review, which will determine whether Miami police engage in patterns or practices of violating constitutional rights or federal law.

In his memo, submitted over the summer, Orosa wrote that his proposed changes were intended to be “lasting and sustainable.”

“The chief of police and his management team are amenable to any meaningful proposals which would allow the Miami Police Department to improve the quality of its services and ensure that all individuals receive fair, professional and equitable treatment,” he wrote.

Some community leaders hope the Justice Department will require that more stringent measures be put into place.

“We’re not letting the police department off the hook,” said Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, or PULSE. “We want to make sure that we have qualified people at the police department who are treating people right and not going around murdering people behind the badge.”

The shootings, five of which involved unarmed subjects, took place over a seven-month span beginning in July 2010, and escalated racial tensions in the city. At the time, Chief Miguel Exposito was at the helm of the department. Exposito took heat for deploying plainclothes units that were routinely criticized for being too aggressive.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has cleared the police officers involved in five of the shootings of any criminal wrongdoing. Two investigations are pending. The Justice Department’s probe is civil, not criminal.

Justice spokeswoman Dena Iverson declined to comment, saying only that the investigation is ongoing.

But U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson said she asked for a status update last week, and was assured that the department is working “expeditiously” to wrap up its probe.

“The interim status is that there are boots on the ground,” said Wilson, who was among the first to call for an independent review of police procedures in the wake of the shootings. “They have dedicated resources. That satisfies me quite well, so long as I know that they are investigating and taking precious time to look into each case and look at all of the evidence.”

Some community activists, however, are less patient.

Last week, representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, PULSE, the Miami Workers Center, Brothers of the Same Mind, the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, the Neighbors and Neighbors Association, and the Spanish American League Against Discrimination assembled at ACLU headquarters in Miami to discuss their concerns with the various investigations.

Jeanne Baker, who chairs the Miami ACLU police practices committee, said the coalition is frustrated with a number of authorities, including Justice and the city of Miami Civilian Investigative Panel.

“We are not satisfied with the response from authorities on any of the shootings,” she said. “We are looking for investigations that hold the police more accountable and look at the policies and practices that led to these issues. It’s extremely frustrating for the community to have such a long delay between when these shootings occurred and now, and still not having concluded investigations.”

The police department says it has taken its own internal steps to prevent problems.

Orosa, who was named chief after Exposito was fired in September 2011, dismantled the controversial tactical units almost immediately after taking the post. In his memo to the Justice Department, Orosa wrote that the teams had caused “unintended consequences” and “placed officers in unmanageable situations by surprising armed offenders.”

As part of his proposal, Orosa said he would create a new internal office charged with reviewing “high-liability matters,” including police shootings and high-speed car chases.

“This section will ensure that the Miami Police Department maintains a check-and-balance system for those matters in order to reach the correct conclusion and determine future needs, such as training, funding, policy changes, etc.,” he wrote.

Orosa also said he would make changes to the Firearms Review Board, which convenes each time a police officer fires his or her weapon. The board used to be chaired by the assistant chief overseeing field operations, to whom most police officers report. The board will now be chaired by the assistant chief of the administrative division to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

Additionally, Orosa plans to beef up the community relations and internal affairs departments.

Baker, of the Miami ACLU, said she had not yet seen the department’s proposal. But when a Miami Herald reporter described the document, Baker was underwhelmed.

“We’re hoping for something much bigger,” she said.

Rep. Wilson said Orosa should concentrate on making the police department look more like the community.

“If the officers were from the community, there would be more trust,” she said.

She added: “It’s extremely important for the community, for the families of the victims, to know that we’re not going to give up on seeking justice for them. Justice has to prevail.”