By David Smiley
The U.S. Department of Justice will spend the next four years looking over the shoulders of Miami's 1,300-member police force, after city commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to approve a policing agreement with the federal government.
The 22-page agreement, prompted by a scathing federal review of 33 Miami police shootings between 2008 and 2011, states that Miami police must "continue to" improve the training and supervision of officers, and the deployment and monitoring of special units. The city must prove by March 15, 2020, or earlier that it has met and held the goals of the agreement for a full year in order for federal oversight to end.
Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes asserted Thursday that nothing will change in how police currently interact with the public and respond to emergency calls, since police have already implemented substantial reforms. Changes made over the last five years include the disbanding of some controversial plainclothes tactical units involved in about half of the reviewed shootings, and the ceding of criminal investigations of police shootings to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
"We have voluntarily involved ourselves in reform at the police department," said Llanes, who has been previously critical of the Justice Department. "Most of the agreement talks about continuing to do the things we're doing now."
Thursday's vote -- years removed from the controversy that surrounded the fatal shooting of seven black men in eight months -- ends a long-running dispute with the Justice Department. It found in 2013 that Miami police had violated the U.S. Constitution by engaging in "excessive use of deadly force," and needed "court-enforced" solutions. That report highlighted the fact that a previous, similar Justice investigation left reforms up to the department without an agreement in place, only to watch Miami officers engage in another string of problematic shootings.
About 30 months of tense negotiations followed, resulting in the newly approved agreement, which some civil rights attorneys and activists find disappointing because it does not involve the courts. But Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who visited Miami two weeks ago as the agreement was being finalized, told him in a one-on-one conversation that "the U.S. Department of Justice was looking at that settlement as a model."
Following the vote, the Department of Justice praised the city's police department for having already addressed problematic policing tactics and squads, and said the agreement will help minimize officer-involved shootings and better investigate them when they happen.
"The agreement will help to strengthen the relationship between [Miami police] and the communities they serve by improving accountability for officers who fire their weapons unlawfully, and provides for community participation in the enforcement of this agreement," Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.
For the city, the agreement critically avoided costs. Justice and Miami agreed to avoid the courts and to appoint former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor as an independent monitor to review the city's compliance. Castor doesn't yet have a contract with the city, but City Manager Daniel Alfonso said he doesn't expect to spend more than $100,000 a year. Other, larger monitoring firms suggested by the Justice Department have charged millions annually in other cities, said Miami police legal adviser George Wysong.
Castor's role will be crucial. She will be expected to help verify whether the city is complying with the agreement, and in about one month will begin to help lay out a detailed plan for how the city should go about following the details laid out in the document. Asked Wednesday to give her thoughts on the current state of Miami police, Castor declined.
"I wouldn't be able to give an educated response to that because I haven't gotten that deep into the position yet," she said.
Some civil rights attorneys and activists had hoped that Miami commissioners would tweak the agreement Thursday to include the involvement of Miami's voter-created Civilian Investigative Panel. But some commissioners said they worried about the consequences of tweaking the settlement.
"I don't want to change this because it's taken us four years to get here," said Commissioner Wifredo "Willy" Gort.
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