A city and its police force offer final salute to departed chief

Former Miami Police Chief John Timoney honored

Former Miami Police Chief John Timoney was honored with a funeral procession past the Miami Police Department in Miami and a service at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Miami Beach on Aug. 19, 2016. Timoney will be laid to rest in New York.
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Former Miami Police Chief John Timoney was honored with a funeral procession past the Miami Police Department in Miami and a service at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Miami Beach on Aug. 19, 2016. Timoney will be laid to rest in New York.

It began under a large American flag, with motorcycles and horses escorting the hearse past Miami police headquarters and officers and civilians standing at attention. It ended with the city’s honor guard passing a folded flag to a mourning wife as the casket was loaded into a hearse, a police helicopter buzzed over the solemn crowd and rifle shot exploded into the air.

In between were stories of rowing, running and bike-riding exploits, love for God and family and a good drink of scotch.

John F. Timoney, a reformative police chief whose use-of-force tactics are now copied around the globe and who led Miami’s 1,300-member police force for seven years, was remembered for a final time in Miami on Friday. He will be buried next week in New York.

Timoney, 68, died Tuesday night in Miami after a seven-month struggle with lung cancer. He leaves behind his wife, Noreen, son Sean and daughter Christine Timoney and three granddaughters.

Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, standing at the pulpit of St. Patrick Catholic Church on Miami Beach, said hiring Timoney proved a big part of his own success. “A mayor’s fate is sealed by his police chief,” he said.

Diaz recalled the day in 2003 he convinced Timoney to take over in Miami. As Timoney walked into the mayor’s City Hall office, Diaz said he made certain the future chief had a perfect view of the calm, blue water below. He said they spoke, glasses of scotch in hand, about the history shared by Cubans and the Irish.

“I went in to close the deal. John took another sip of scotch. He looked at the palm trees. He looked over the warm waters of Biscayne Bay,” Diaz said. “He loved the city and its people. He called it the undiscovered paradise.”

Timoney, an avid rower, long-distance runner and biking enthusiast, began his policing career in New York City in 1969. He was named police commissioner in Philadelphia in 1997 and was became Miami’s chief in 2003. He taught at Harvard after he retired and did consulting work in the Northeast and in the Middle East.

His exploits are legendary: He rowed the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia each morning and took friends on trips to Ireland where they rowed some more. In Miami, it was common to see the chief riding his bike from one end of the city to the other. Residents waved and rank and file were forced to tag along. Sometimes, he even rode it to church. One time he jumped off his bike and made an arrest.

“I know God loved him, because every time we left the church our bikes were still there,” said biking companion and Assistant Miami Police Chief Jorge Gomez.

Timoney’s profile got a big boost in 1993 when he was named New York City’s youngest four-star chief and deputy commissioner. His star continued to rise during a stint in Philadelphia that began in 1997. There, he put in place a set of use-of-force policies that curtailed police shootings and cut crime, but which were at odds with several civil liberty groups.

He took a lot of heat after the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia, when hundreds were arrested for minor offenses. Most of those cases were dropped. To avoid direct conflict, Timoney used undercover officers, embedded police and gathered intelligence.

His style soon caught the eye of Diaz, a political novice who had just won Miami’s mayoral slot and who was facing massive protests with the upcoming Free Trade Area of America’s summit. Timoney was hired in 2003. Again, hundreds were arrested for mostly minor offenses, the charges eventually dropped. Again, the American Civil Liberties Union took offense and filed lawsuits.

But during one 20-month span under his watch in Miami, not a single officer fired his or her weapon at another person. Police shootings plummeted in a troubled department that had been dealing with the U.S. Department of Justice over police shootings and planted weapons. Lore is that when an officer asked him what it would take to fire his weapon, Timoney replied, “tire tracks on your chest.”

Shortly after Timoney left in 2010 during a political shakeup, many of his policies were reversed under a new police chief. Miami cops shot seven black men over a seven-month period, some who didn’t have weapons. Again, the DOJ came calling.

Now, under Chief Rodolfo Llanes, Timoney’s policies are back in place and police shootings have dropped. Those facts didn’t escape Diaz.

“Miami did not face those problems when John Timoney was in charge,” said Diaz. “He left an enduring imprint on our city.”