Miami-Dade took a big step Tuesday toward reviving a civilian board to review police conduct when commissioners narrowly approved a measure to fund the panel and instructed the mayor to find about $750,000 a year to pay for it.
The item by Commissioner Barbara Jordan met resistance from the county’s police chief, mayor and fellow commissioners who questioned the wisdom of spending money on another avenue for scrutinizing law enforcement. “I suffered under these people,” said Commissioner Joe Martinez, a former county police officer. “I don’t like being judged by people who have never walked in my shoes.”
But Jordan said the Independent Review Panel can play a vital role in addressing public concerns about actions by county employees. “This is something the community wants and the community needs,” she said.
The panel was launched in the 1980s after the McDuffie race riots, sparked by the acquittal of four county police officers in the beating death of a black insurance agent, Arthur McDuffie. It was defunded in 2009 amid a budget crisis sparked by a national housing collapse, though some saw its demise under Mayor Carlos Alvarez — a former county police chief — as a verdict on the panel’s work itself.
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Tuesday’s 7 to 5 vote didn’t break entirely along racial lines, although Jordan and the commission’s three other black members — Audrey Edmonson, Jean Monestime and Dennis Moss — backed the measure, as did Bruno Barreiro, Daniella Levine Cava and Xavier Suarez. Joining Martinez on the No side were chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Rebeca Sosa, and Javier Souto. Sally Heyman was away from the dais for the vote.
The American Civil Liberties Union has urged Miami-Dade to reinstate the review panel, which could investigate conduct by any county employee but had largely focused on police action. Miami has a similar board, which came under fire in 2014 for not being aggressive enough in probing complaints against officers.
Jordan’s ordinance calls for staffing the 13-member panel mainly with representatives from civil rights organizations and other advocacy groups, including the Florida Immigration Coalition, the ACLU, the Spanish American League Against Discrimination, the Miami-Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police and Haitian Women of Miami. The panel could subpoena witnesses and documents, but the ordinance bars it from examining issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the county’s Inspector General Office.
The commission vote may not be the final decision. Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who was a Miami paramedic during the riots, hinted he may veto Jordan’s measure. He argued against Jordan’s proposal, citing his own $3 million program equipping county police officers with body cameras — technology he argued could have prevented the McDuffie riots by proving conclusively what happened during his arrest after a high-speed chase.
“There was a time for an independent review panel when there were all sorts of questions about who did what,” he said. “But with the advent of body cameras, what actually happened is much clearer now.”
Gimenez aides noted citizens can already file complaints against employees with other agencies, including an arm of Miami-Dade’s Human Resources department. Juan Perez, the county’s current police chief, argued his officers don’t deserve to be the unofficial subject of the new investigative panel.
“There is no widespread distrust of this police department,” said Perez, who oversees a 4,000-employee police department with a $680 million yearly budget. “The funding should be used, in my opinion, to combat gun violence.”