Miami-Dade County

Miami police chief to feds: We don’t need a court monitor in wake of deadly shootings

Arguing that the Miami Police Department has come a long way since a rash of deadly police-involved shootings, Chief Manuel Orosa has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to reconsider its decision to have a federal judge oversee the department.

Orosa, in response to findings last month that Miami engaged in an unconstitutional “pattern or practice” of excessive use of force, suggested that the Justice Department instead consider collaborating with the police department to forge changes.

Miami should not pay for the “sins” of its previous leaders, Orosa said in an Aug. 6 letter to Justice, laying much of the blame for the shootings on his predecessor, Miguel Exposito. Orosa said Justice should consider suing Exposito personally, as opposed to the department.

“It is my recommendation that if the USDOJ aims to seek sustainable remedies for our nation’s law enforcement agencies, it should hold those leaders personally responsible for their actions and accountable through civil action,” he wrote in the letter, obtained by the Miami Herald through a public records request.

In an interview Tuesday, Exposito called Orosa’s suggestion “ludicrous.”

“Nothing he says people can take seriously,” he said.

Exposito issued his own detailed rebuttal to Justice in an Aug. 8 letter to U.S. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. The former chief defended his tenure and asked the Cuban-American Republicans to request a Senate inquiry into the Justice investigation, which Exposito blasted as slipshod.

The Justice Department’s 18-month investigation probed 33 police shootings between 2008 and 2011, including ones that killed seven black men in the inner city. The feds concluded that, in addition to the three shootings the police department had found to violate policy, an unspecified number of additional shootings involved excessive force.

Officers in five of the seven shootings have been cleared by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.

A similar Justice investigation into police shootings more than a decade ago did not find excessive force but rather deficiencies with Miami’s investigations. Citing significant improvements in following years, federal authorities closed that probe in 2006 without a formal agreement.

But Justice was forced to return to Miami five years later, beginning its latest investigation in November 2011. And now the agency seems unlikely to let the police department slide with only a warning.

“They were embarrassed,” Orosa acknowledged in an interview Tuesday.

The next step is for the feds to draw up a list of needed reforms to be overseen by a federal judge in Miami.

A court-appointed monitor, including a compliance unit within the police department to track the reforms, could cost the city from $1 million to $6 million a year, Orosa estimated, contending that a monitor should be required only when a department is unable or unwilling to undertake its own policy changes.

“We’re a poor city, and we don’t have that money,” he said. “We have demonstrated that we can fix ourselves.”

He pointed to changes instituted since he took over the department in September 2011, including scaling back plainclothes tactical teams whose members took part in many of the shootings.

While Orosa agreed with the Justice Department’s concern that Miami’s policies and practices remain consistent in the long run, he wrote to the feds that he hoped to collaborate with them on remedies without a court-enforced mandate, known as a consent decree.

As an alternative, Orosa in the Herald interview cited a study published last month by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington D.C. think tank, that examined civil-rights investigations of local police departments.

The study suggested that, as a less adversarial and cheaper way to address shortcomings, the Justice Department’s office of community oriented policing services (COPS) could work with local police to develop reforms, as it did with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department last year.

It’s unclear whether Justice would agree to that sort of request from Miami, considering its civil rights division thought it necessary to spend a year and a half investigating. Unlike the COPS office, the civil rights division has the power to sue police departments if its recommendations are not implemented. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Orosa disagreed with Justice’s finding that Miami “engages” — in the present tense — in a “pattern or practice” of excessive force, and with the feds’ contention that the department contributed to “egregious” delays of deadly-force investigations. Some of his criticism coincided with Exposito’s.

Both men called the federal authorities’ report vague because it did not specify which shootings involved excessive force. That makes it difficult to address which tactics, if any, were poorly employed by the officers involved, as the Justice Department found.

Orosa and Exposito also noted that the police department conducts timely investigations of officers involved in shootings but often cannot complete them quickly because Miami-Dade prosecutors get first dibs at trying to interview the officers and deciding whether to file criminal charges. Several investigations into whether officers followed policy when discharging their firearms remained open more than three years, Justice found.

“Their arguments are really, really weak,” Exposito said Tuesday. “If they go in front of a federal judge with the information they have, I can’t see a judge forcing the city into some kind of contract.”

Exposito further argued that Justice failed in its review by not noting how many officers from other law-enforcement agencies were involved in shootings inside the city’s borders — and by not interviewing him, despite his expressed intention to cooperate with investigators. According to Exposito, the feds also did not interview his predecessor, John Timoney, who was hired in late 2011 to train police in Bahrain.

“The Justice Department investigators violated the most basic principle governing the investigative process: to seek all available sources of information and obtain as many facts or as much data as possible from them,” Exposito wrote.

He described the investigation as politically motivated in part by Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, whose public clashes with Exposito over arrests involving video-gaming machines known as maquinitas ultimately cost the police chief his job. And Exposito called the reforms highlighted by Orosa as “window dressing” that merely repackaged existing policies.

“It’s policies that we had that we did not abide by,” Orosa countered, adding that some of his changes were, in fact, new.

Orosa said he considered many of the feds’ concerns directed not at policies unchanged since they were written before the Justice Department left town in 2006, but rather at the people carrying them out.

To that end, Orosa noted that the department has changed its policies to prohibit future police chiefs from making wholesale changes to the command staff — a move made by Exposito that federal authorities questioned in their meetings with Orosa.

“Unfortunately, none of these concerns was mentioned in the Findings Letter,” Orosa wrote.

Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.

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