Miami set to hand over police-shooting probes to FDLE

The police reality show The First 48 may have doomed a Miami murder prosecution.
The police reality show The First 48 may have doomed a Miami murder prosecution. Miami Herald File

As Miami nears an accord with the U.S. Department of Justice over a string of police-involved shootings in the past seven years, the city is set to hand over future investigations into shootings and in-custody deaths to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The move, on the heels of a similar October agreement between the FDLE and Miami-Dade police — among the largest police departments in the southeastern U.S. — would leave only a handful of agencies in Miami-Dade to investigate their own shootings.

Among them: Hialeah and Miami Beach, which took almost two years to wrap up the high-profile 2011 Memorial Day shooting death of Raymond Herisse. That controversial barrage of bullets, in which more than 100 were fired from more than one agency, remains an open file at the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, which is ultimately responsible for determining criminal wrongdoing.

Miami leaders and the elected officials who are set to vote on the hand-over Thursday, see the switch as an additional layer of transparency after years of controversial local police shootings, and an extra layer of protection after the national outrage that erupted following the deaths at the hands of police of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.

Cops and police union leaders see the transfer through another lens: They say it’s nothing more than a slick public relations move at the expense of police. And that it won’t really make a difference because ultimately the decision on criminal neglect remains in the hands of the state attorney’s office.

“There’s a perception that to have internal folks investigate our own people could create a bias,” said Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso. “It reduces the likelihood of former partners investigating each other.”

Miami police union President Javier Ortiz said commissioners and administrators should focus on the issues that breed criminals, like unemployment, lack of education and poverty.

“The FDLE does not have the capability to properly handle our police-involved shootings,” he said. “Our police department has seasoned investigators who are used to handling shootings all over our municipality.”

The entities involved in the agreement are Miami, the state attorney and the FDLE. When the county police handed investigations over to the FDLE in October, its communications director, Gretl Plessinger, said FDLE had the resources to investigate other agencies and that if issues popped up, it would reevaluate the situation.

Miami, which had one police-involved shooting in 2014, has had its share of issues in the past. Most notably, a rapid-fire string of seven shootings by police of black men in the inner-city over a seven-month period that ended in February 2011.

Those shootings, which played a large part in the departure of Police Chief Miguel Exposito, attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which began a civil rights investigation that is yet to be completed. Like Miami internal affairs investigators, State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle’s office found no fault with any of the shootings, even though no weapons were found near several of the victims.

In summer 2013, after pressure from local activists and U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson over the inner-city shootings, DOJ began a look into 33 police-involved shootings in Miami between 2008 and 2011 and determined a pattern of “excessive force.”

Many of those shootings were the result of more aggressive undercover police work than the department uses today. DOJ said Miami police were too slow in investigating their officers and is demanding a federal monitor, which has become the sticking point in reaching a final resolution.

The agreement between Miami and the FDLE is set for a vote by the city’s five commissioners Thursday. It would give FDLE authority to look into any shootings by a Miami police officer while on duty, any death of someone arrested, or the death of anyone just prior to an arrest.

Just like the city does now, any findings by the FDLE would be forwarded to the state attorney, who would use the information to conduct an investigation of its own into any possible criminal wrongdoing. Fernández Rundle said that she has total trust in the agencies investigating themselves, but that the change is intended to give the community more faith in police work.

“Unfortunately, police-related shootings often result in community tensions and distrust based on perceptions of bias and a lack of transparency,” the Miami-Dade state attorney said. “Having FDLE perform/conduct these investigations may serve to eliminate or, at least, reduce the level of community tension and may help instill community trust and confidence in future police-shooting investigations.”

County police switched to FDLE in October after a pair of controversial high-profile shootings. One of them resulted in state prosecutors blasting the department; the other instigated a lawsuit against the county and the officer who fired his weapon. In 2014 Miami-Dade police shot 11 people. Four of the shootings resulted in death. Eight people died while in custody.

Even with the switch to FDLE, Miami-Dade police will continue to investigate police-involved shootings in most police agencies in Miami-Dade. The only departments still conducting their own investigations will be North Miami, North Miami Beach, Aventura, Miami Gardens, Hialeah and Miami Beach.

Hialeah Police Lt. Carl Zogby said his department hasn’t considered handing over investigations to FDLE. He said Hialeah police had one in-custody death and one police-involved shooting death in 2014. Both investigations remain open.

Miami Beach Police Detective Vivian Thayer said her department had no police-involved shootings in 2014. But one of the city’s most high-profile shooting deaths — one that occurred almost four years ago — remains open.

On the final day of Urban Beach weekend in 2011, police say Raymond Herisse, 22 at the time, rambled his car several blocks along South Beach, nearly hitting officers and sideswiping vehicles. After several blocks the car finally stopped and was surrounded by officers from Miami Beach and Hialeah, who unloaded a barrage of 116 bullets.

Herisse was hit 16 times. Four bystanders were wounded. No weapon was initially found in the car, though police said they recovered one wrapped under a seat a few days later.

The case was cleared by Miami Beach investigators in summer 2013, but remains open at the state attorney level. Spokesman Ed Griffith said there’s no time frame to complete one of the most complicated cases his agency has ever had to deal with — tracing the movement of Herisse’s car and the 116 bullets fired by police.

“We’re still making sure all the issues are appropriately addressed,” Griffith said. “It’s a highly complex investigation. Possibly one of the most complex we’ve ever seen.”

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.

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