Miami-Dade County

Justice Department’s civil rights review of Miami police shootings still not finished

More than 2½ years since Miami police shot and killed seven black men within seven months, and despite pleas for action from a congresswoman, the U.S. Department of Justice hasn’t concluded its civil-rights investigation of the city’s police department.

DOJ launched a probe of the Miami Police Department’s “patterns and practices” in November 2011, after the series of police shootings rocked the inner city. In two of the cases, the men who were killed had no weapons.

Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa said he hasn’t heard anything from the Justice Department. He blames the shootings on his predecessor, Miguel Exposito, who assigned more officers to plainclothes tactical units in an aggressive bid to free the streets of deadly weapons.

That strategy, Orosa said, “plac[ed] officers in a position where they had to shoot first.”

In April, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson — who had urged DOJ to investigate the shootings wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, saying she supported the outside review as a way to ease tensions in her district and to ensure a transparent examination of the shootings and police practices.

“The killings left family members of the victims devastated and my community outraged and searching for answers. As their congresswoman, I would like to provide an update on the ongoing investigation,” wrote the Miami Democrat.

Wilson, in an interview, said she’s eager for a resolution. The congresswoman said she spoke to a DOJ representative as recently as Monday and was told to expect a final report “sooner than later.”

Wilson said she’d like to know “what should we do as a community? How do we move forward?”

She requested something in writing, but said their only response was “we have boots on the ground” and the report would be out soon.

“It’s almost like an onion,’’ Wilson said. “You have to peel back the layers to look at the history of how blacks are treated. The police don’t shoot white men, they just don’t do that. Grown [black] men are afraid of the police.”

Dena W. Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, told the Miami Herald that the “the investigation is ongoing.” She declined further comment.

Former Chief Exposito blamed the killings on aggressive targeting of street gangs. He said the strategy resulted in the confiscation of about 1,000 high-powered weapons. After Orosa took over, he disbanded several plainclothes units that had been working with federal authorities and placed the officers back on patrol; those units were involved in most of the fatal encounters.

Months of pressure from residents, city leaders, civil rights groups and Wilson were answered in November 2011 when the Justice Department’s civil rights division agreed the shootings and police policy required review. Investigators quickly descended on the city to watch training sessions, ride with officers and sit through roll calls.

They demanded thousands of pages of documents and computer files. Orosa and others say DOJ is no longer visible despite the answer to Rep. Wilson that they still have “boots on the ground.”

The Justice Department also demanded an action plan from Orosa within 90 days.

By the middle of January 2012, the department submitted a 12-point plan that included creating a squad of homicide detectives dedicated to investigating police shootings. It also proposed creating an internal three-member board to review police shootings, SWAT missions and car chases, and increasing the size of the internal affairs office. The plan was forwarded to the head of DOJ’s civil rights division, Thomas Perez.Miami is still waiting to hear back from DOJ. Orosa said he could not say why. Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said he hadn’t been updated on the issue.

Perez has been involved in a testy battle with Senate Republicans the past few months after President Barack Obama tapped him to become the nation’s next labor secretary.

The police department got a call from DOJ late last year saying the city hadn’t sent in its action plan, but a representative called back later after the paperwork was located.

The shootings occurred between July 2010 and February 2011, killing DeCarlos Moore, Joel Lee Johnson, Gibson Junior Belizaire, Tarnorris Tyrell Gaye, Brandon Foster, Lynn Weatherspoon and Travis McNeil.

Two of the men, McNeil and Moore, did not have weapons.

Officers involved in five of the cases have been cleared of wrongdoing by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, including Reynaldo Goyos, who killed McNeil, 28. But the department fired Goyos because he violated internal policies, leading to the fatal event.

Relatives of the dead men, including McNeil’s mother, are frustrated by the pace of the federal review.

Sheila McNeil said she calls federal authorities seeking an update on the investigation about once a week, but they keep telling her “it’s ongoing” and to call whenever she wishes. As for being updated by elected leaders, that’s not happening, she said.

“They’re only around during election time,’’ she said. “I’m on my own.”

Goyos shot Travis McNeil in February 2011, after a plainclothes squad including Goyos and federal agents was alerted by local police that McNeil might have been drunk as he left a club around midnight.

The officer said he fired after repeatedly yelling at McNeil not to move, as McNeil reached for something under his seat. No weapon was found.

Orosa fired Goyos in January after the department’s Firearms Review Board found the officer had used “unjustified deadly force.” Orosa determined Goyos shouldn’t have put himself in a position where he felt he had no choice but to shoot.

“I agree with the outcome of the criminal investigation, but internally he broke policy, that’s why he was fired,” Orosa said. “He placed himself in a position where he had to shoot. He could have backed off.”