Four decades after Miami’s black community erupted in anger after four white Miami-Dade County police officers were acquitted of killing black insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie, the county is again grappling with the idea of civilians overseeing the actions of its police force.
The calls for an independent review board have grown louder as massive protests have unfolded in South Florida and almost every other major U.S. city, since George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck.
Demonstrators are demanding more police accountability. On Wednesday, the county’s Black Affairs Advisory Board formally urged Miami-Dade to install a citizen review board. In the meantime, the board resolved to act as its own review panel through public records requests of citizen complaints.
“The time is now,” said Justin Pinn, a black educator and leader of a federally appointed board overseeing reforms in Miami’s city police department. “The time is really yesterday.”
Critics such as police unions, which deliver votes and campaign contributions, argue civilian oversight is just another unnecessary, unchecked layer of review on top of internal affairs — an arm of the police department that reviews its own.
“When you add this, who regulates them?,” said Steadman Stahl, president of the union called the South Florida Police Benevolent Association. “They want to be totally independent. They answer to nobody. I think that’s kind of dangerous.”
Proponents have long maintained that cops policing each other allows officers to protect each other, and that outside eyes provide better scrutiny.
Panels like one that existed for 30 years after the 1980 McDuffie riots can investigate complaints against police and independently review internal affairs inquiries. Such groups have no authority to discipline officers — but they can seek answers, review records and issue reports and recommendations to top police brass, who have no obligation to follow the advice.
The county panel lost its funding in 2009 during a budget crisis, and the money never returned, despite high-profile incidents of police misconduct in Miami-Dade.
In 2018, Mayor Carlos Gimenez vetoed legislation backed by the County Commission’s four black members and passed by a slim majority of commissioners to reinstate the board, with seats filled by representatives of community groups. Gimenez said he would only accept a board appointed solely by county commissioners.
Last week, as thousands took their frustration to Miami’s streets, a Miami-Dade commissioner running for mayor in August said one of the reasons the county doesn’t need to revive the oversight panel is because the commission is diverse enough — even though commissioners have no part in investigating complaints against police.
Other law enforcement agencies handle complaints against their officers differently.
In Broward, County Mayor Dale Holness said he favors creating such an oversight group. Sheriff Gregory Tony would prefer to give a recently overhauled joint police/citizen review board a chance to hold deputies accountable before advocating for an independent panel.
In Miami, the debate is underscored by a history of affronts to the African-American community, from the construction of Interstate 95 through the heart of Overtown in the 1960s, to the McDuffie verdict in 1980, to the killing of several unarmed black men by police in the early 2010s. Those killings led to investigations and monitoring by the U.S. Department of Justice.
More recent incidents have raised questions about officers’ use of force, and in January, black members of the police department said leadership has ignored complaints of discrimination within the force.
Police oversight is certain to emerge as a key issue in this year’s elections. An exasperated black community wants leaders to follow through on meaningful change.
WHO WATCHES THE POLICE?
In 1979, 33-year-old McDuffie ran a red light on his motorcycle. When Miami-Dade County officers caught up to the former Marine, they beat him into a coma. He died days later from his injuries. In 1980, an all-white Tampa jury acquitted four Miami-Dade officers of killing McDuffie.
Riots broke out in Miami. Buildings were set aflame and the National Guard was deployed. Eighteen people were killed, hundreds were hurt and a community was scarred by the pain of feeling that justice was not served.
In the aftermath, Miami-Dade County created the Independent Review Panel to hear and investigate complaints of police misconduct, review disciplinary actions by internal affairs, and issue reports and recommendations. The panel worked for 30 years until it lost its funding in 2009 during the budget crisis caused by the Great Recession.
In 2018, Gimenez vetoed a revival of the review panel after Miami-Dade commissioners approved the measure. The vote was led by one of the commission’s four black members, Barbara Jordan. A group of citizens studied the history of the original panel for a year, ultimately recommending it be revived as the “Independent Community Panel,” which would hear complaints against police officers and other county employees.
Commissioners brushed back objections from the county police department and law enforcement union, with Yes votes from each of the 13-seat commission’s four black members — Jordan, Audrey Edmonson, Jean Monestime and Dennis Moss — and three other commissioners.
At the time, commissioner and former Miami-Dade police officer Joe Martinez argued against scrutiny of police by civilians.
“I suffered under these people,” Martinez said. “I don’t like being judged by people who have never walked in my shoes.”
When he issued his veto, Gimenez said he would only support a board filled with commissioners’ political appointees. Jordan’s proposal would have filled seats with representatives of outside groups, including the county’s police chief association and the American Civil Liberties Union.
On Thursday, Gimenez reiterated his position, saying he wanted a politically appointed board and not one with seats filled by outside groups.
“I wanted the commissioners to be able to name their own representatives,” he said.
This week, Miami-Dade Commissioner and mayoral candidate Esteban “Steve” Bovo said the county has enough accountability measures in place for police.
“For the record, in Miami-Dade we have numerous community relations boards, a County Commission that is one of the most diverse in the nation, as well as training requirements for our law enforcement that has evolved over years of difficult situations,” said Bovo.
Bovo tweeted the statement Sunday after CBS4 reporter Jim DeFede asked several county mayor candidates if they would support reestablishing a civilian review board.
In 2018, Bovo voted against the panel’s revival. Two other sitting commissioners and mayoral candidates, Daniella Levine Cava and Xavier Suarez, voted for Jordan’s legislation and said this week they still want to see the board reinstated. Alex Penelas, the former mayor who is running again in 2020, said he is also supportive.
“Citizen participation and oversight is always a good thing and goes a long way in restoring confidence,” he said. “That’s why I supported and funded an Independent Review Panel when I was mayor and support it now.”
Police civilian oversight panels have always been a controversial topic and despised by politically powerful police unions, which view them as just another unnecessary layer of authority in addition to internal affairs. The unions have fought particularly hard against oversight groups that are granted subpoena power, which the unions believe violates protections under Florida’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
In the city of Miami, spates of police violence and corruption led voters to override any such opposition in 2001.
TheCivilian Investigative Panel (CIP) was overwhelmingly approved by referendum that year after multiple fatal police shootings of black men. Thirteen officers were indicted on charges of planting guns, nine of whom were later convicted. Support for the vote was cemented in 2000 after members of the Cuban-American community complained of rough treatment at the hands of police during the seizure of Elian Gonzalez.
Still, the union continued to battle the civilian panel and was finally rewarded in 2017 when the state’s Supreme Court ruled the panel could no longer subpoena city police being investigated because it violated protections of officers’ rights under state law.
The decision ended an eight-year battle with the union that began when one of the city’s most celebrated officers — Freddy D’Agostino, who once had a severed head tossed at him — filed a lawsuit to block a CIP subpoena in 2009.
After the first night of protests prompted by George Floyd’s death, Rodney Jacobs, the CIP’s assistant director, said the panel is a place for the community to air its frustration. He encouraged the community to take its complaints to the panel.
“Your only option is not just to protest or go to the streets. You can come to our office. You can file a complaint,” Jacobs said. “Use that collective energy that you have right now at our meetings. Use that collective energy to ensure that your local leaders understand why our department is vital. Use that energy appropriately.”
MIAMI PANEL HAS UNCOVERED PROBLEMS
Cases arising from the Miami panel’s work are sometimes covered in the media, but get little public attention. Its meetings are sparsely attended. The full panel meets the third Tuesday of every month. Meetings are being held online now during the pandemic. People can file complaints online.
The panel’s primary power is in the information it puts before the public by investigating claims, examining body camera footage and other records, and conducting interviews to see if complaints against police are valid and if internal affairs investigations were properly handled.
Officers rarely respond to interview requests during CIP inquiries — they are not obligated to participate and cannot be subpoenaed — but the panel has found in multiple cases that camera footage and other evidence contradict official police accounts.
The effectiveness of police oversight can be difficult to measure when the panel can only bring information to light and make recommendations. But the panel’s executive director, Cristina Beamud, pointed to a few examples that uncovered problematic internal affairs investigations and forced the police chief to take action.
She noted a case in 2014 when an attorney shopping at the Publix in downtown Miami watched a Miami police officer use a Taser on a homeless man while trying to remove him from the store. The attorney complained to internal affairs, which eventually closed the case because it couldn’t find the homeless man. Records obtained by the panel showed the Taser was deployed several times, leading Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa to reopen the case and reprimand the officer.
Then in 2017, Beamud said, then-Chief Rodolfo Llanes agreed to reopen a case involving a Guatemalan woman who complained that police refused to help her when she reported her purse was stolen at a downtown department store. Internal affairs had closed the case because police said she couldn’t provide a passport to verify her identity.
Miami’s CIP has also engineered some fairly high-profile cases.
In 2007, a panel inquiry forced Miami Police Chief John Timoney to go before Miami-Dade’s Commission on Ethics and Public Trust over a Lexus SUV he had received for free from a dealership in Kendall. He had never recorded it as a gift. Timoney eventually agreed to a week’s docked pay, a $500 fine and a written reprimand.
In January 2019 the panel found fault with several officers who were seen on video kicking and pummeling a man named Ravon Boyd in Overtown as he lay on the ground with his hands in the air. Officers had lied on their written reports of the incident. One officer eventually resigned as the department was preparing paperwork to fire him for covering his body-worn camera.
The CIP has called out the department multiple times when police misused the cameras and failed to turn them on. In the case of Boyd’s beating, body camera footage from the officer who resigned contradicted the paperwork.
Body camera footage, along with bystander cellphone footage, has aided police oversight on multiple occasions. Bodycam video shows Miami police officer kicking at suspect’s head.
One Miami police officer was cleared after kicking at a robbery suspect’s head as he went to the ground. Another resigned after blocking his bodycam video with his hand. BY MIAMI POLICE DEPARTMENT
Miami’s current police Chief Jorge Colina said he supports the civilian oversight panel because it was created by a public vote. Assistant Miami Police Chief Cherise Gause, a black woman, said the CIP helps to build trust and legitimacy in the community.
“It lessens the amount of suspicion,” she said.
The public has a difficult time understanding how difficult it is to fire a police officer, Gause said. Miami, for instance, had an officer on its payroll who had been suspected for six years of being involved in a murder but was never charged. Another, who was fired by Colina, returned after it was determined his firing violated the collectively bargained agreement between police and the city.
The officer suspected of being involved in the murder was finally fire last summer on a technicality — when a state appeals court ruled the city could fire him for refusing to take a drug test.
The citizens panel “is good for oversight and it helps the community to understand our policies and procedures,” said Gause.
At minimum, the panel provides people a public forum through which they can air their grievances.
“Oversight isn’t a new innovation. It helps people have outlets for their anger,” Jacobs said.
The anger over racism in law enforcement has manifested in protests that have ranged from calm to violent across the U.S., though demonstrations have remained mostly peaceful in Miami this week. Still, black community leaders want the public to know that calmer protests do not mean there isn’t a strong movement for change.