Miami-Dade County

Auditors recommend changes to Miami Beach police after controversies

Miami Beach’s frequently scrutinized police department should “strongly consider” equipping officers with cop-cameras, discouraging them from firing at dangerous drivers, and rethinking officers’ off-duty details, according to an audit of the department released Wednesday.

The review of the department was commissioned last year after a series of headline-grabbing controversies, in particular the fatal Tasering of teen graffiti artist Israel “Reefa” Hernandez-Llach. Auditors with the Police Executive Research Forum were asked to review the department’s policies and determine if any changes were needed.

Overall, they found that the department has undergone “significant improvement over the last several years, partly in order to respond to episodes of high profile officer misconduct.” But they made a series of recommendations, a few of which speak to controversies that have dogged the department.

Among them:

• Cautioning officers against using their Tasers repeatedly on a suspect, and discouraging them from using the Taser’s drive-stun mode, which inflicts pain but doesn’t immobilize,

• Making it a “high priority” to ban officers from shooting at suspects who are driving their car dangerously at police but aren’t threatening officers with any other weapon.

• Developing clearer policies for random and suspicion-based tests to see if officers have alcohol in their system while on duty

Dan Oates, the department’s new chief, said Wednesday afternoon that he hadn’t read the final draft of the audit — he was taking a certification exam that morning — but had already intended to make some of the recommended changes. He said he planned to review the department’s Taser policies and change the rules involving officers and dangerous drivers.

“I will be looking at all use-of-force policies,” he said.

Body cams — mobile recorders that auditors recommended as a means to protect both police and the public in he-said-she-said complaints — will also be used by the department, Oates said. Some changes, however, will have to be hashed out between city officials and executive members of the local police union, City Manager Jimmy Morales said Wednesday.

“I will, of course, work closely with Chief Oates to review and implement [the audit’s recommendations] as appropriate,” Morales wrote to city commissioners.

Attempts to reach police union president Sgt. Alejandro Bello on his cellphone were unsuccessful.

The audit, which cost $110,000, included scores of recommendations, some minor and others speaking directly to the department’s most embarrassing incidents in recent history.

Take for instance the fatal Tasering of “Reefa.” Officers said they spotted the teen tagging an abandoned North Beach McDonald’s and after a foot chase an officer shot him with a Taser.

Police insisted their officer acted within department policy in the incident. But the shock from the weapon was listed by the Medical Examiner as a contributing factor in Hernandez-Llach’s cardiac arrest, and his death sparked outrage. The incident was the main reason the city commission requested the audit, and auditors were specifically asked to review the department’s Taser policies.

Previous controversies were also mentioned in the review. And auditors’ suggestion that the department punish officers even for low blood-alcohol levels come on the heels of a criminal trial for Derick Kuilan, an officer fired after he went on a drunken ATV joyride with a bride-to-be and crashed into a couple on the beach, causing them severe injuries.

Also, the auditors’ recommendations to hold fire at oncoming drivers follows the very public shooting of a driver who on Memorial Day 2011 was killed by police in a hail of more than 100 bullets. The shooting happened after police said the driver tried to run over several officers.

Officers at the time also said there were reports of shots coming from the vehicle, but a gun found days later beneath the driver’s seat hadn’t been fired.

Auditors also suggested the department create a better, more independent manner of doling out off-duty hours in a city packed with clubs and bars.

“Off-duty employment can be a source of a pattern and practice of officer misconduct,” they stated.