By David Smiley
Nearly two years after a federal investigation into 33 police-involved shootings concluded that Miami cops had engaged in a pattern of excessive force, talks to resolve the findings appear to have fizzled.
In fact, though Miami officials dispute this, the Department of Justice says settlement negotiations have broken down completely.
In a strongly worded letter to Miami's city attorney, the head of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division Special Litigation Section said two weeks ago that the city had stopped responding to phone calls and emails. Acting Chief Judy C. Preston wrote that she wanted to resume negotiations this month and conclude them by May -- with or without the city's cooperation.
"Our most recent negotiation session was on January 22, 2015. Since then, our repeated phone calls and emails to your office have gone unanswered," Preston wrote in a March 31 letter obtained by The Herald. "From this unwillingness to communicate on your part, we can conclude only that the City no longer wishes to negotiate an agreement to amicably resolve our investigative findings."
Preston said Justice is "prepared to take all necessary steps to bring about a resolution," and requested that City Attorney Victoria Méndez or her staff reply by April 6 to discuss how to resume negotiations.
She's still waiting for a response, according to City Manager Daniel Alfonso.
"We received the letter. We're concerned about some of the tone and we're certainly going to respond as appropriate," he said.
Méndez did not respond to an email and phone call to her office Monday. But she and Alfonso are scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss how to respond, according to Alfonso, who disputed that the city has ignored Justice's correspondence.
"I know that we have been in some communication with them," said Alfonso. "This is an area where it might end up in the courts, so I'd rather not get into too much detail."
City and Justice officials have been working toward an agreement since the summer of 2013, when Justice released findings following a lengthy review of all shootings from 2008 to 2011, including seven deadly incidents in the inner city that riled the black community.
The agency found the department was correct in ruling three of the 33 police-involved gun incidents "unjustified," but said that others also were unwarranted. Justice declared that the department also had been slow to investigate its own officers, seven of whom were involved in more than one-third of the shootings. And it said officers used poor tactics.
Justice sent a proposed consent decree to the city in September of 2013, laying out a series of reforms, including a recommendation that a federal monitor review changes and practices by the police department. The longer settlement talks have run on, the more the city has faced pressure from civil rights organizations and civilian groups.
"I'm disappointed that the DOJ felt the necessity to issue that letter," said Horacio Stuart Aguirre, chairman of Miami's Civilian Investigative Panel, a board authorized by voters to review police complaints and shootings. "I fear that if the city goes to war with DOJ, the DOJ will prevail."
Preston stated that if the city doesn't wish to conclude negotiations, Justice's attorneys and expert consultants would visit the police department in the coming weeks. She asked that the city provide complete files for all police-involved shootings occurring after July 9, 2013, along with copies of new policies and procedures, changes in training, and copies of all complaints alleging officer misconduct during shootings.
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