Miami-Dade County

Beleaguered Miami Beach may start police review board

Reeling from another bout of intense media scrutiny, Miami Beach has decided to audit its police department’s policies and is considering implementing a citizen’s review panel.

City leaders aren’t taking the steps because they think their department has done wrong, but because they want to shake the “bad rap” they say their police officers have unfairly garnered.

In the past month alone: A teenage graffiti artist died after a Beach cop zapped him with a Taser. A detective was accused of beating up a drunk model and a passerby who tried to intervene. Another cop won his job back after being fired because of accusations that he beat up gay men in a park.

At a commission meeting this week, elected officials, the police chief, the union president and the city manager vented their frustrations on how the media — and the city — has handled each case.

Snippets of the catharsis:

City Manager Jimmy Morales: “Miami Beach is sexy news to the world, and they want to write, and they’re usually going to write negative stuff.”

Fraternal Order of Police Miami Beach President Alex Bello: “Be leaders and say, ‘We support the actions of our officers until you can show me that something has been done wrong.’ ”

Mayor Matti Herrera Bower: “I just want confidence back into our police department, that I know that the majority, if not 98 percent of the people. are good policemen, and they’re getting a bad rap and so are all of us.”

Dependant on tourism, Miami Beach can’t afford an image crisis in its police department. In the upcoming fiscal year alone, the city is counting on $33 million in resort taxes to cushion the budget.

But the negative publicity has been plentiful:

• May 2011: Police shoot 116 rounds at a drunk driver, killing him in the middle of a crowded street. After the hail of bullets, in which four bystanders were also wounded, cops were accused of seizing cameras from witnesses who filmed the shooting.

• July 2011: Two police officers are photographed partying in uniform on South Beach. One would later take a bachelorette on a drunken ATV ride along the beach, running over two people.

• Other officers have been accused of driving recklessly along the beach, drinking a beer while riding as a passenger in his own squad car, lending a cop car to a meth dealer and leaving the scene of a drunken, wrong-way crash on the interstate.

Part of the problem, Bower said, is that the media keeps rehashing these issues instead of leaving them in the past.

“We have to move forward,” Bower said.

Police Chief Raymond Martinez said the department has already taken steps to do that. Martinez became top cop about a year and a half ago, and was joined by Deputy Police Chief Mark Overton, who previously led the Hialeah Police Department.

The new chiefs have restructured the department’s internal affairs department, which investigates complaints against its own cops. The chiefs have beefed up the IA staff and added an FBI public corruption investigator. They’ve also changed the role of investigators, who no longer conclude themselves whether the accused police officer has done wrong.

“Now they are just investigators. They are fact finders, and they present their findings, their facts, to our deputy chiefs and to our majors, and they are the ones who decide whether there’s wrongdoing within the department.”

Commissioners on Wednesday decided to go a step further, and agreed to ask the International Association of Police Chiefs for a proposal and scope of work to audit the department’s policies on use of force and Tasers. A city committee will also review the proposal.

Police Chief Raymond Martinez said: “I support that 100 percent.”

“I feel very strongly that an independent review panel to look at completed investigations is almost what we have now, quasi-fair, with the media and with the public. Because these are public documents and these are public reports, and so they are scrutinizing our investigations to begin with, but not scrutinizing them, I think, fairly.”

The commission passed, however, on an immediate decision to implement a citizen’s review panel, and instead sent the idea to a city committee for review and discussion. The idea is not without its naysayers: It either goes to far, or not far enough, depending on the person asked.

Morales, the manager, said the city doesn’t propose to create a review board like the City of Miami’s, where citizens can lead investigations and drop subpoenas.

Bower said that having no subpoena power would render the board useless.

“I thought it was a BS thing about this board: You can’t subpoena. You can’t do anything,” she said.

She called for the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene, but didn’t get much support for that. Commissioner Ed Tobin said inviting the DOJ to look at the Beach’s cops would send the wrong message to the police force.

“That’s like telling them they’re criminals,” he said.

Bello, the union president, told commissioners he would urge the officers he represents not to testify in front of a review panel “whether you subpoena them or not.”

“I’m going to tell you right now, we’re not going to go. I’m not going to send my officers in there to testify prior to the opportunities that they get afforded to them by the Officer Bill of Rights,” Bello said.

The bill of rights is a state law that provides certain protections for cops accused of wrongdoing. Officers also have a right to file grievances, and have them heard by an independent arbitrator.

An independent arbitrator recently decided that Miami Beach Police Officer Frankly Forte should have his job back. Forte had been accused along with his work partner of beating up two gay men in a park. His partner also go his job back.

Bello said that was proof that the city had “rushed to judgment.” He said media coverage of the recent death of a teenager who had been shocked by a Taser was another example of that. He and commissioner Tobin have suggested the young man died because he was on drugs when he was shocked — not because of improper use of force or flawed policies.

“What we feel right now is you’re guilty until you’re proven innocent,” Bello said.