Miami-Dade County

In 2015, Miami and Justice Dept. still negotiating police reforms

Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa.
Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa. Miami Herald Staff

In the summer of 2013, following a lengthy review of 33 police-involved shootings during a three-year span, the U.S. Department of Justice found that when it came to pulling the trigger, Miami police had engaged in a pattern of “excessive force.”

Justice — which began its review after the deadly shooting of seven black men in the inner city, some unarmed — said the department’s practices violated the Fourth Amendment and recommended new training policies and more timely and thorough investigations when officers fire their guns. The federal agency also reminded the city that the last time it found troubling trends, in the early 2000s, changes left up to the department didn’t take hold, and so a monitor was necessary to oversee a formal settlement.

But as 2015 begins, Justice and the city are still negotiating. The delay is not unusual, as such settlements or consent decrees can sometimes take years to negotiate, but civic groups are anxious for a resolution at a time when the nation’s focus is on deadly incidents involving police.

“There’s a lot of unfinished business in this city with respect to police practices,” said Jeanne Baker, co-chair of the police practices committee of the American Civil Liberties Union Miami chapter. “It’s urgent the police department work with city leaders to get, as quickly as possible, implementation of the reform recommendations DOJ made in its findings letter. There are important reforms that need to be implemented.”

City officials, however, are preaching patience, saying the potential consequences and costs of the looming settlement are too significant to rush. Miami’s mayor and police chief also continue to stress that many of the policies and practices that Justice found problematic — such as the deployment of plainclothes tactical teams responsible for many of the reviewed shootings — were eliminated or addressed long ago.

“I think yes, the community does need answers,” said Mayor Tomás Regalado. “But I think from the Miami police department side all the fixing has been done.”

A Justice spokeswoman declined to comment for this article beyond acknowledging that discussions continue with the police department and the city attorney’s office. Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa said in a recent interview that some of the issues he raised almost immediately after Justice issued its findings continue to be a sticking point.

Orosa said the two sides are still going back and forth. He declined to discuss specific items to which the department objects, but noted in a letter to Justice in the summer of 2013 that a federal monitor was too costly and unnecessary.

“Our position has always been we’re the fifth poorest city in the nation. We have a 29 percent poverty rate. The citizens shouldn’t be paying for that. It should be someone else: the federal government or get someone go do it for free,” Orosa in a December interview. “We’ve offered a couple individuals who would do it for free. They haven’t gotten back to us.”

Orosa said the city expected Justice to set another conference in January after being delayed in December by police-related tensions in Ferguson, Missouri. A member of the city attorney’s staff working on negotiations said he was not authorized to comment.

Justice first released its findings report on July 9, 2013, following a reviewing of all shootings from 2008 to 2011, including seven deadly incidents in the inner city that riled the black community. The agency found that the department was correct in ruling three of the 33 police-involved gun incidents from 2008 to 2011 “unjustified,” but said that others also were unwarranted.

Those shootings took place under aggressive policing tactics overseen by then-Chief Miguel Exposito, who has dismissed the findings as vague and politically motivated, and has staunchly defended his tenure. Justice declared that the department also had been slow to investigate its own officers, seven of whom were involved in more than one-third of the shootings. And it said officers used poor tactics.

While Justice noted the progress made under Orosa, it also noted its disappointment that it was once again finding fault with the department after a review just a few years earlier — prompted by a spate of “throw-down” incidents in which several officers were convicted of planting guns on suspects who were shot by the police.

“Given the fact that this is our second investigation of MPD within the last twelve years, and the fact that many of the deficiencies that we previously uncovered now appear to be deeply rooted, we are concerned about the sustainability of these recent changes,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez.

That’s one of the reasons groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP remain vigilant in monitoring the situation. Adora Obi Nweze, president of the NAACP Miami-Dade chapter, said the current national climate — prompted by police-involved deaths in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York —makes a resolution all the more important in Miami.

“It’s been an awful long time since the DOJ has said anything else to us,” she said. “I really don’t know what we can do about it other than keep advocating.”

With Orosa expected to retire at the end of January, it appears likely negotiations will continue under incoming Chief Rodolfo Llanes. If the two sides can’t come to an agreement, DOJ can file a civil rights lawsuit.

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who wrote to Justice years ago asking for a federal review of the department, said she remains encouraged by changes in the department and the progress of the talks. Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, said she spoke to Justice shortly after the new year began.

“I think it’s important to get it right, because this is not the first time that the Department of Justice has come to Miami to oversee the police department,” said Wilson. “Personally, I can see improvement … and I would not be so anxious for us to change course or force the DOJ to change course.”

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