Op-Ed

Justice Dept. should finish the job

TELLING HER STORY: Sheila McNeil speaks emotionally about the death of son Travis McNeil, who was shot to death by police in 2011 during a traffic stop.
TELLING HER STORY: Sheila McNeil speaks emotionally about the death of son Travis McNeil, who was shot to death by police in 2011 during a traffic stop. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

On Aug. 2, 2011, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado wrote then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requesting Department of Justice’s (DOJ) assistance after seven black men had been killed by Miami Police Department (MPD) officers over eight months in 2010-2011.

Travis McNeil was one of those black men unjustifiably killed. Mayor Regalado acknowledged Miami needed DOJ’s assistance because of a serious problem — an out-of-control police force. After DOJ investigated police shootings over a five-year period, Justice issued its findings on July 9, 2013 of an unconstitutional “pattern or practice” of excessive use of force.

“Pattern or practice” findings by the DOJ normally result in negotiations and settlement between a city and the DOJ. It leads to exactly what is still needed in Miami — police practice reforms and federal oversight. After all, Mayor Regalado knew the city had — and still has — a serious problem, and needs DOJ oversight. This is what recently occurred in Cleveland — but has not occurred in Miami. It has been nearly two years since the DOJ’s “pattern or practice” findings were issued, with no resolution in sight. In fact, the city has ceased negotiating in good faith — leading to the DOJ threatening to broaden its investigation and file suit.

DOJ needs to finish the job. Or history may repeat itself — again.

In 2002, the DOJ launched an investigation into MPD’s practices in response to allegations that officers used excessive deadly and non-deadly force. It uncovered serious deficiencies in MPD’s investigative practices and use of deadly force. DOJ found that these deficiencies led to a heightened risk that officers would use force excessively. That investigation culminated in a March, 2003 technical-assistance letter to MPD. And it resulted in no meaningful federal oversight or reforms.

More important, DOJ’s admonitions were not heeded. Even though DOJ continued attempts to work with MPD to improve its practices, problems still persisted. In a follow-up technical-assistance letter in January 2006, the department recommended that MPD improve accountability by modifying its policies and training to require more diligent and thorough investigations.

The recent DOJ findings concluded that MPD still engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force with respect to firearm discharges in violation of the Fourth Amendment. It noted that many of the problems that were supposed to have been fixed had reoccurred, evidenced by a steady rise in officer-involved shootings. The DOJ also noted that the previous spike in officer shootings may have been avoidable, and that continued, court-enforceable oversight is necessary to ensure lasting reforms.

Justice and the city of Miami are supposedly still in negotiations. “Supposedly” because the media reports talks have broken down because of a refusal by city officials to return phone calls and emails. This is shameful behavior. Instead of stonewalling, the city should welcome the oversight, which will protect Miami residents from further unnecessary police violence. After all, DOJ began its investigation at the request of the city. Now is the time for the following to be done:

▪ Mayor Regalado and the City Commission must direct the city manager and city attorney to accept DOJ’s conditions and enter a judicially enforceable agreement for reform.

▪ Should negotiations with the city continue to stall, DOJ must file a lawsuit against the city, and seek a judicial resolution.

The possible consequences of failing to resolve what everyone recognizes is a problem in a timely manner could conceivably result in other tragic killings such as occurred to Travis McNeil.

The city and the Justice Department have the duty and responsibility to ensure our city is not exposed to the same tragic events as happened in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Staten Island, and other cities, not to mention the heartache to families of those who are unjustifiably killed by police officers who fail to obey the law.

Randall C. Berg, Jr. is executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, Inc., and attorney for the Estate of Travis McNeil.

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