Miami-Dade County

Miami, DOJ settlement negotiations resume Thursday

After months of finger-pointing, Miami city leaders and the U.S. Department of Justice may be once again heading toward a settlement that would wrap up years of negotiations and begin the process of reforming and monitoring the city’s police department.

Attorneys for Justice’s civil rights division traveled to Miami and met with city attorneys Thursday to try to finalize the details of a settlement sought since July 2013, when a two-year review of 33 shootings by the federal agency found that Miami’s police had engaged in an unconstitutional pattern of excessive force. Both sides hope to establish court-sanctioned monitoring of the department that would lay out how to train officers and handle police-involved shootings.

Cathleen Trainor, Justice’s lead attorney on the case, could not be reached on her cellphone ahead of Thursday’s meeting, and Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez would not discuss the status of talks. Reached late Thursday, Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said, “I don’t know that anything is imminent.”

But he added, “I’m glad they’re back.”

That the two sides are even meeting face to face is notable considering the frosty relationship between the DOJ and the city. In March, Judy Preston, head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division Special Litigation Section, accused Miami’s attorneys of stonewalling negotiations. And emails between the two sides show that in the following months, the city and Justice did as much finger-pointing as negotiating.

“While the city has indicated that it wants to resolve this matter expeditiously, the city’s actions have not been consistent with this objective,” Preston wrote in late July after waiting more than two months for Miami’s attorneys to respond to the latest settlement proposal.

However, Méndez has argued that Justice — which investigated a spate of troubling shootings by Miami cops in 2002 and cleared the case in 2006 without a formal agreement — was being unreasonable in negotiations.

“We have inexplicably been told that the city of Miami is a special case that needs stricter oversight,” Méndez wrote to Preston in April. “We do not understand why the city has been singled out for disparate treatment.”

Méndez reiterated that the city wanted to reach a settlement. But in June, after the city failed to respond to a draft settlement by Justice, Trainor canceled a trip to Miami. In the days after, Miami police shot a homeless man in a park and the city settled a case filed by the family of Lynn Weatherspoon, killed by a Miami officer in 2011, for $350,000.

“Are these two events sufficient impetus to bring you back to the table?” Trainor wrote in an email to police legal adviser George Wysong.

Wysong replied: “I must remind you that I was sitting at the table by myself when you decided not to come on June 3 and June 4. Fortunately, the pastries did not go to waste. Nevertheless, the City continues to be ready, willing and able to continue negotiations.”

And yet, at the time, Miami’s attorneys had already blown past a deadline by a week to respond to the latest settlement draft offered by Justice. On July 23, still awaiting a response, Preston wrote again to Mendez questioning the city’s motives.

The Miami Herald obtained DOJ’s draft settlement, which shows that Justice wants to act as the department’s monitor, and wants the program to run at least three years. Justice also was pushing for the creation of a civilian advisory board, and language that would require the police department to respond to inquiries and subpoenas issued by Miami’s voter-approved Civilian Investigative Panel.

Mayor Tomás Regalado believes a final settlement could be in place before Justice attorneys leave Miami on Friday after another day of talks, particularly after the federal agency agreed to pick up the cost to monitor the department. Llanes wasn’t as confident, in part because he disagrees with the agency’s findings.

“The whole concept that someone in the Justice Department knows how to properly police anywhere is ludicrous on its face. What do they know about modern urban policing?”