The U.S. Justice Department’s long-awaited report finding excessive use of force by Miami police officers might not be a criminal indictment, but it reads like one.
The findings, released last week after a 20-month investigation, depict a dysfunctional department with poor firearms training, tactics and supervision — along with sloppy internal investigations of police-involved shootings that often drag on for years with no discipline or accountability.
Justice’s civil rights division, prodded into action by seven fatal police shootings of African-American men, found that the Miami Police Department had fully investigated only 24 of 33 shooting incidents from 2008 to 2011, allowing “multiple investigations to remain unfinished for three years or longer.” Seven officers were involved in one-third of those shootings.
“Had the shooting investigations been completed in a timely fashion, corrective action could have been undertaken and may have prevented the harm that can result from officers’ repeated shootings,” said Justice’s letter of findings, signed by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez.
Legally speaking, Justice officials found the 1,100-officer department engaged in an unconstitutional “pattern or practice’” of excessive use of force, violating the Fourth Amendment rights of people shot at by Miami officers over the four-year period. The 13-page letter addressed to Mayor Tomás Regalado and Police Chief Manuel Orosa is laden with details of mistakes and misconduct.
For Sheila McNeil, the mother of Travis McNeil, an unarmed 28-year-old man fatally gunned down by a Miami police officer in 2011, Justice’s report was long overdue.
“It took the lives of seven young men for [Justice] to take a look at what was going on,” said McNeil as she sat in the courtyard of her Overtown apartment. “We felt abandoned for a long time.”
McNeil said she hoped the report would remind the public of what she considers to be the needless killing of her son and other black men — and what the police department must do to make amends.
“I want people to remember that his life was snatched from him at a young age,” said McNeil, who is raising Travis’ 12-year-old son.
“When his son needs him most, he’s not here,” said McNeil, whose family filed a federal lawsuit Friday on the son’s behalf. “I just dread the fact that he died the way he did, by police who were sworn to protect the public.”
In January, Chief Orosa fired Officer Reynaldo Goyos, who fatally shot McNeil and wounded his first cousin, Kareem Williams, after they had visited a club in the Little Haiti area on the night of Feb. 10, 2011. The police department’s Firearms Review Board found Goyos, who was working as a member of an undercover federal gang task force, had used “unjustified deadly force.”
The McNeil shooting was one of three found to be “unjustified” by the city’s police department, according to Justice’s report, though federal investigators have identified “other shootings that appear unjustified and may have resulted from tactical and training deficiencies.”
The other two unjustified Miami police shootings involved an unarmed motorist who reached for his wallet after a traffic stop and an armed man who fired his gun toward a crowd in front of a restaurant before fleeing in his vehicle.
“Not every situation involving an armed subject excuses the use of deadly force,” Justice’s report said.
A former top officer in the Fort Lauderdale Police Department who served as former Gov. Charlie Crist’s deputy chief of staff overseeing state law enforcement agencies said the Justice Department has stepped up scrutiny of the use of excessive force nationwide, from New Orleans to Detroit to Seattle.
Chuck Drago, a former Oviedo police chief, said Justice’s report on the Miami Police Department was “extremely critical.”
“I’ve seen some of these reports where [federal officials] are vague about what the department is doing wrong,” said Drago, now a consultant based in Orlando. “This one is pretty strong.
“They went down the list of what you need to have a good police department, and [Miami officers] are not doing any of them, according to the Justice Department. . . . They are pointing out that this is a systemic problem, a cultural problem — a culture that has to change.”
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 from 2002 to 2004 when no police officer discharged his firearm.
That probe was closed in 2006 without a formal agreement or further review.
Now, however, it appears that many “deeply rooted” problems “are still entrenched,” according to Justice’s new findings.
Among them: “Poor tactical decisions by officers,” including “poor marksmanship, shooting from too great a distance, failure to follow perimeter protocol, and firing at a moving vehicle.” Another problem: “Failure to await backup.”
“There were several incidents where officers fired their weapons without sufficient regard for potential risks to the community,” according to Justice’s findings.
And when officer-involved shootings occur, the report found, investigations are “unreasonably delayed,” with some lasting more than three years. One has been pending for five years.
Even when such shootings are investigated, confusion abounds. Key witnesses and crucial evidence are misconstrued or deliberately ignored. Shooting officers are not required to give statements. Files are not tracked and cannot be located. It is not even clear who is leading the probe: the homicide squad or the Internal Affairs unit.
‘Taking the next step’
Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said the city’s police department failed to maintain improvements to its excessive-force policies under Justice’s supervision a decade ago.
“This time, the Justice Department is taking the next step to have a federal judge review and enforce the settlement agreement reached with the MPD,” Ferrer said. “This will result in sustainable reform.”
City Manager Johnny Martinez said last week he was limited to what he could say because the police department is negotiating a final settlement agreement with the Justice Department.
“We agree with some of the Justice Department’s findings and disagree with others,” Martinez said Friday. “But we are confident we can resolve our differences and move forward with the settlement under a court review.”
Martinez said that some issues have already been addressed, noting that the police department has already dismantled certain plainclothes squads. Several of the controversial fatal shootings involved such specialized squads, which the Justice report found were hampered by weak tactical planning, inadequate supervision and failures in after-incident analysis.
Miami Fraternal Order of Police President Javier Ortiz said the union agrees that the department has training deficiencies and lacks supervisors on the street.
But overall, Ortiz said, “There is clearly a disconnect between the [Justice Department] and the reality of what our Miami police officers confront on a daily basis.” Ortiz said he was troubled that the report “gives the impression that the Miami Police Department is run like the wild, wild west.”
Ortiz took issue with Justice for pointing out that Goyos, the officer who killed McNeil in 2011, had been involved in a non-shooting role in a 2008 case that is still under investigation. Federal officials said that had the police department fully investigated that previous shooting, “perhaps retraining or other corrective action may have been taken” to prevent the McNeil fatality.
Ortiz said the reality was that he, Goyos and other officers provided backup for a police sergeant who was confronted by a man aiming a loaded gun at the sergeant. “That was absolutely a justified shooting,” Ortiz said.
Still, Ortiz said Friday that his union wants to be part of the solution “in order to find a happy medium for the community, police department and police officers to embrace.”