Miami-Dade County

Miami police settlement with Justice Department avoids federal courts, costs

When the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing 2013 report rebuking the Miami Police Department, it looked like the federal government was prepared to come down hard on a repeat offender.

The city’s police force, having shot seven black men in a span of eight months, was accused of overzealously engaging in shootings, haphazardly investigating those incidents, and employing poor tactics that endangered officers and the public. Justice said Miami’s problems were systemic and left unresolved by a previous and similar federal investigation, leading to the expectation that the city would be pushed to enact sweeping reforms overseen by a federal judge.

Instead, a proposed settlement that may be approved Thursday by city commissioners strikes a much softer tone, crediting the police department for proactive reforms and forgoing the filing of a federal complaint unless the city violates the settlement before its resolution in 2020. Some observers find the settlement disappointing, but city officials appear content after 30 months of protracted negotiations.

“I think Justice has shown that where appropriate they’ll bring down the hammer,” said Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez. “I think this is an indication that where appropriate they’ll tailor their decree to the circumstances.”

The stakes could be high Thursday. Some cities have found that agreements with Justice to oversee police departments run years longer than expected and cost many millions more than budgeted. In Ferguson, Missouri, where the killing of unarmed Michael Brown sparked racial tensions across the country, elected officials recently rejected key portions of a federal settlement largely due to the estimated cost of imposed reforms, leading the Justice Department to announce the filing of a lawsuit against the city.

But as Miami commissioners prepare to vote on the agreement, there is little evidence of angst. The cost of the agreement is expected to be negligible, although the city has yet to finish a financial estimate. Even Miami’s pugilistic police union president, Javier Ortiz, gives the agreement a “thumbs up.”

In fact, the agreement is so amenable to city officials that it may be passed on “consent,” without even being acknowledged. But if that happens, it would be to the dismay of a contingent of civil-rights advocates, activists and attorneys who believe the settlement still needs work.

“It’s not enforced by the court, and if the city were to not comply or meet its obligations, the remedy is for DOJ to go back to the start and to sue them. I think that’s a big, big issue,” said Ray Taseff, a civil rights attorney who represented the estate of a man shot dead by a Miami officer in 2011 while unarmed. “My concern is that history will repeat itself unless they have something with more teeth.”

Part of Taseff’s surprise is that when the Justice Department issued its report on Miami police in 2013, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez wrote that the agency wanted “court-enforceable” remedies given the city’s failure to stay out of the federal government’s sights. Less than a year ago, a draft agreement obtained by the Miami Herald still contemplated that Justice would file a complaint against the city as part of a court-enforced agreement.

That language was absent from the document released last week, as were previously considered requirements that police respond to subpoenas and recommendations by Miami’s voter-created police civilian oversight board — another issue creating frustration with the settlement.

Cathleen Trainor, a senior trial attorney for Justice who negotiated the agreement, declined to comment for this story, as did Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes. But his predecessor, Manuel Orosa, said the proposed settlement isn’t lax but rather a reflection of the proactive steps taken by Miami police before the investigation was finished. Orosa, for instance, dismantled some of the plainclothes squads involved in about half of the 33 shootings reviewed by Justice, and modified procedures for investigating police-involved shootings.

“I think part of the problem that DOJ had trying to leverage the city is that when they came in a lot of the things they wanted were already done,” he said.

Orosa argued from the beginning of negotiations that a costly federal monitor wasn’t necessary. Ultimately, the city and Justice agreed on former Tampa police chief Jane Castor as the person to look over Miami’s shoulder the next four years. Castor said Wedneday that she doesn’t believe the settlement, if approved, will be toothless or the type of agreement that runs on endlessly at substantial costs.

“If you look at some of the past consent decrees, they have turned into what in some cases seem like never-ending monitoring,” said Castor, who doesn’t yet have a contract with the city. “That's just not going to be the case in Miami.”