Miami-Dade County

FDLE to investigate Miami-Dade police shootings

Under the policy shift, FDLE will probe any active-duty police officer-involved shooting, and any death of anyone taken into custody by Miami-Dade police.
Under the policy shift, FDLE will probe any active-duty police officer-involved shooting, and any death of anyone taken into custody by Miami-Dade police. Miami Herald File

After years of complaints and controversial shootings, Miami-Dade police will no longer investigate itself for criminal wrongdoing in shooting deaths. Those probes will now fall under the watchful eye of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The move by the largest police agency in the southeastern U.S. — which rarely accuses one of its own of using excessive force in a shooting death — is being hailed by county leaders as a lesson in objectivity.

Local civil rights groups, which for years have been calling for the department to distance itself from investigating its own, are warily on board. The police union is barking at not being involved in the negotiation process.

“It really is an effort to give the public a sense of third-party objectivity,” said Miami-Dade County Police Director J.D. Patterson. “It’s always a good idea to have an objective third party from time to time if your integrity is questioned.”

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who pushed for the change, said it will make the department more transparent and strengthen the community’s trust.

“I don’t believe agencies should be investigating themselves,” the mayor said.

Nathaniel Wilcox, who heads up People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, called it a step in the right direction. But he was leery to give a full-hearted endorsement because the final decision on any criminal investigation still rests in the hands of the state attorney.

“I think that it does create some more transparency,” he said. “But I want to see how the process works. Historically, the state attorney always sides with police. And how honest will the FDLE be?”

Miami-Dade commissioners voted 9-2 Tuesday to endorse the accord between the FDLE and Miami-Dade police. During a tense discussion, Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz said the item was rushed. Only commissioners Diaz and Esteban “Steve” Bovo voted no.

Police union president John Rivera, a Gimenez foe, issued a letter later in the day to Patterson, angrily deriding the administration for not letting the union take part in the negotiations, and for hiding the agreement until the last possible moment. He called the decision “nothing more than pure politics.”

Repeating a theme he brought up in January when the policy switch first came to light, Rivera called it a continuation of the mayor’s attempt to gut a department that was looking into alleged absentee ballot fraud around the time of his last election in 2012.

Last year, the mayor supported a move to partially dismantle the department’s much ballyhooed public corruption squad. The decision was criticized by the police union and had veteran county cops seething. The administration said it was upset with costly investigations that had limited results.

It is “MDPD ivnestigators who teach and train other entities throughout the world how to conduct shooting investigations,” Rivera wrote. “This is nothing more than pure politics and only serves to further demoralize my members.”

The policy change also comes after two controversial and high-profile shootings — one that resulted in state prosecutors blasting the department, the other which instigated a lawsuit against the county and the police officer who fired his weapon.

The most recent was in March 2012, when more than a dozen officers sledge-hammered their way through the front door of Michael Santana’s Miami Lakes home. Officers suspected Santana, 27 at the time, of selling pot. A cop in protective gear shot him three times and killed him in his foyer as he confronted them with a pistol.

His girlfriend, a Hooters waitress and Playboy model, witnessed the shooting and told authorities they thought they were being robbed. In March, Santana’s father filed a wrongful death civil rights lawsuit against Miami-Dade and officer German Alech, who shot Santana. Miami-Dade prosecutors determined the shooting was justified and declined to file charges.

Alech is also one of 11 tactical officers who fired weapons in a botched 2011 sting in the Redland that killed four armed robbers. The robbers were armed, but never fired their weapons. They were coaxed into believing they were there to steal a shipment of marijuana. One of the men killed was an informant who had surrendered and was lying on the ground.

Prosecutors issued a scathing report over that incident, calling it “disturbing.” Yet they couldn’t find enough evidence, they said, to support criminal charges against the officers. Miami-Dade police are still conducting administrative reviews on both incidents.

Miami-Dade police shot 17 people in 2013, and two others died in custody. This year, county cops have shot eight people, with four of the shootings resulting in death. Eight people in custody have died.

Gretl Plessinger, who heads up communications for the FDLE, said her agency signed off on the agreement after a request from local officials. She said FDLE has the resources to undertake the investigations, but will reevaluate if necessary.

The FDLE is experienced at handling police-involved shootings. It now oversees investigations for more than 20 police departments statewide, including in Orlanda, Orange and Escambia counties.

The Memorandum of Understanding between Miami-Dade and the FDLE that was ratified Tuesday directs the state agency to determine if a crime was committed during a shooting or in-custody death, then to turn its findings over to the state attorney.

Under the policy shift, FDLE will probe any active-duty police officer-involved shooting, and any death of anyone taken into custody by Miami-Dade police.

The agreement calls for the ranking officer at the scene of a death to ensure medical services are provided and to secure the scene. The ranking officer will also be responsible for detaining whoever is under arrest at the scene until FDLE arrives.

The FDLE will take part in gathering forensic evidence, but much of that job will still be done by Miami-Dade police.

Though FDLE is to take control of any possible criminal investigation, Miami-Dade police still retain the right to issue initial press statements. When an FDLE report is completed, it is to hand over its findings to the state attorney’s office, which will make a final determination on any possible criminal activity.