What Ferguson can teach Miami about civilian oversight

As with people, cities can learn from their mistakes or from the mistakes of others. The latter option is preferable. The recent events in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Mo., can be instructive for any American city.

Two weekends ago, a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, as he was walking near his grandmother’s house. The fatal shooting exposed deep racial and economic divisions in the community. As police response to protests have escalated, the community has been torn apart. What remains clear is that many of the residents do not trust the police and feel that their voices have not been heard.

The city of Miami has a troubled history of its own with police shootings. Only last year, an investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found that there was “reasonable cause to believe that [the Miami Police Department] engages in a pattern or practice of excessive use of force with respect to firearms discharges.”

This was the second time that the DOJ had cause to investigate MPD in a little more than a decade. The first investigation began in May 2002 and was predicated on allegations that officers had used excessive deadly and nondeadly force. The DOJ concluded in 2003 that there were deficiencies in MPD’s investigative practices and observed that officers’ use of deadly force was sometimes avoidable. They also noted that the promise of a Civilian Investigative Panel (“CIP”) should provide a crucial oversight mechanism and be an important deterrent of police misconduct.

The CIP, which was established in 2002, consists of 13 diverse members of the community who are authorized to review and investigate complaints of misconduct by sworn members of the police department. It was intended to add accountability, transparency and legitimacy to the relationship between the residents and the police. Functioning as it should, it provides an independent and unbiased forum where the public can be heard when they are aggrieved by the police and an avenue of communication through which panel members can provide thoughtful perspectives and recommendations to the chief of police and City government.

In an age of increased and rapid media scrutiny, no issue or controversy remains local. Yet, decisions that result in incremental and fundamental changes in trust in the police and community safety most often happen at the local decision-making level. Thus, community input is valuable to the citizens, elected officials, and the police department. Good civilian oversight can prevent the distrust and anger that precedes rioting. As Martin Luther King said, “Riot is the language of the unheard.” The CIP provides a forum to be heard.

It was a coalition of community organizations that came together in 2001 to demand the creation of a community oversight body for Miami police, won 73.8 percent support on a binding public ballot and midwifed the birth of the CIP in the city’s charter and code. Prompted by the fatal shootings of seven young black men over the course of just seven months in 2010/2011, that same coalition came together once again to monitor and study the current performance of the CIP.

Unfortunately, after three and a half years of scrutiny, the coalition that helped create the CIP recently presented evidence to the Miami City Commission demonstrating that the current CIP is not fulfilling its mission and is not meeting the requirements of the city charter and code. In response, city commissioners appointed a five-member Independent Review Committee to look into the performance of the CIP and its independent counsel.

It is the coalition’s hope that the important work of the Independent Review Committee will put the CIP back on the right track — for the sake of all the Michael Browns who live in the city of Miami.

Jeanne Baker and Julia Dawson co-chair the Police Practices Committee of the Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and members of the Civilian Investigative Panel Community Coalition of Organizations.