On racial issues, good intentions aren’t enough

As mayor of the city of Miami, the civil disturbances and violence that followed the McDuffie trial in 1980 were not a surprise. The trial after the violent death of an African-American man in Miami at the hands of a Miami-Dade County police officer was decided by an all-white jury in Tampa, on March 31, 1980. By that time, Miami had its first black city manager and black city attorney.

Upon my election as mayor in 1973, I quickly realized that the Miami Police Department (MPD) was still run by former Police Chief Walter Headly’s no-nonsense philosophy: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” After a public hearing to address the routine use of police dogs on Coconut Grove youths, it was clear that the MPD was a group of “good old boys” — an overwhelmingly white, Southern police department.

The majority of our police officers were honest, hard-working, public enforcers. The problem was that the MPD was less public-service oriented. Knowing this could not be tolerated, I blew the whistle on my own MPD by denouncing police excess at the U.S. Justice Department, Civil Rights Division. It took five years to negotiate and sign a consent decree. That consent decree still stands today, 35 years later.

With the backing of all five votes on the Miami City Commission, change came to the MPD. The work of Miami’s first African-American city attorney, George Knox, was decisive in persevering.

But our good intentions and limited success were not enough to prevent the community explosion that occurred in Miami after the McDuffie verdict in 1980.

I was always in touch with my former Miami Commission colleague, M. Athalie Range. Range was wise, impatient with slow progress and full of good counsel. She knew a blowup was coming. The most basic of the inequality sins was endemic in Miami: the lack of equal opportunity.

Yes, Miami had inequality in education, low mobility, limited job opportunities and poor preparedness and access for Miami minorities. The city, the county, and the state did not have fair representation. In Metro Dade County, for example, of a nine-member Commission, there was one black commissioner. This, in a county with almost 20 percent black voter registration.

What makes all of this pertinent today was the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a city police officer and the subsequent disturbances.

When there is institutionalized racism at work, good intentions and having the first elected black president and first black attorney general in America are simply not enough.

Yes, we have made major headway in race relations, and the playing field is much more level today than it was in 1980, but we still must have more soul-searching and need better police/community relations and more buy-in by all.

Miami is made up of citizens whose origins, in the majority, are foreign born, mostly from the Caribbean and Latin America, and they marvel that we do not have a national police force. Yet the progressive militarization of our local police is alarming. Yes, the drug gangs, and even street thugs, have heavy automatic weapons, but that should not require the use of armored vehicles and even heavier weapons to safeguard our streets. But, the issue is not armament driven, rather the proper use of lethal force evenly used.

We do not yet have a full and clear history of what actually happened in Ferguson. Perhaps the facts will condemn Michael Brown. But past history in some American cities has not shown restrained, impartial police enforcement.

Ferguson is one of 90 smaller cities surrounding St. Louis. It has a population of less than 22,000. Two-thirds are black, yet 50 of the 53 sworn officers of the Ferguson Police Department (FPD) are white. Twenty-five percent of the FPD budget comes from traffic fines. Over 95 percent of last year’s traffic fines came from black traffic offenders.

In a black majority city, with a white mayor, a white majority on the City Council, a white police chief with a 96 percent white police force, the disparity of traffic fines alone is enough to unsettle a poor, small, Southern/Midwestern city.

Community endeavors in our nation, county and city have to aim at a return to the concept that, as dangerous as police work is and as fine as our police officers are, the police must be keepers of the peace, as well as enforcers of the law. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best, when he said that order sometimes requires the use of force and peace only comes from harmony.

Maurice A. Ferré is a former six-term mayor of Miami.