MIAMI, FLORIDA – The U.S. Justice Department will investigate whether Miami police violated the constitutional rights of seven black men who were shot to death by officers over an eight-month span, raising tensions in the inner city and sparking demands for an independent review.
The civil investigation — known as a “pattern and practice’’ probe — will examine Miami police policies and training involving deadly force. The goal: to determine if systemic flaws made shootings of black men more likely, rather than unfortunate, last-choice actions, as the officers’ supporters maintain.
A source close to the investigation confirmed Wednesday night that Thomas E. Perez, head of Justice’s civil rights division, and Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer will announce the investigation during a press conference in downtown Miami Thursday morning.
Family members of the deceased, church leaders and activists have been invited to meet with Ferrer Wednesday afternoon, but they were not told why. They reacted with relief when told the news.
“Oh, that’s great, great, really good,” said Sheila McNeil, whose unarmed son Travis McNeil, 28, was shot to death in his car in Little Haiti Feb. 10 by Officer Reinaldo Goyo. The officer said McNeil was driving erratically. No weapon was ever found.
“I’m just glad to know it’s not forgotten,’’ McNeil told The Miami Herald. “Right now I don’t know more than I did the night he died, so I’m just waiting to hear what they have to say.”
But Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, or PULSE, who has stood with many of the dead men’s families during a series of emotional public meetings, criticized federal authorities for not opening a criminal investigation into the shooting deaths. They spanned July 2010 to February 2011.
“We think they really took too long and we feel abandoned,’’ Wilcox said. “We expected the Obama administration to do a lot more and a lot quicker than they did.”
The Justice Department will not conduct criminal investigations into the seven shootings, which are under review by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. But Justice will look into the Miami Police Department’s training methods, leadership and practices. Any adverse findings could lead to court-enforced reforms, but more frequently, Justice works with a police department to iron out any problems.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami declined comment Wednesday.
Acting Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa did not respond to interview requests. But spokesman Delrish Moss said the department is being revamped under the new chief, who assumed the post in September and is conducting a “top to bottom review of everything, from training to hiring.”
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado did not return calls.
The impending investigation marks the second time in a decade that federal authorities have conducted an investigation into alleged systemic violations of constitutional rights by Miami police officers.
In 2002, Justice conducted a much broader civil probe, concluding in 2003 that the department had serious flaws in the way it conducted searches and seizures, used firearms, defined use of force and worked with police dogs. The inquiry began at the city’s request after several controversial police shootings.
However, the report did “not reach any conclusion” about whether the police department’s policies caused civil rights violations.
Since the latest spate of shootings began in July 2010, the public and families of the slain men have clamored for answers, repeatedly seeking transparency from police and the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.
The police, under the leadership of then-Chief Miguel Exposito, who was terminated in September for insubordination, took heat for keeping quiet. Exposito even refused to turn over information to a civilian oversight panel when it sought details on the first shooting, of DeCarlos Moore in Overtown in July 2010.
Exposito blamed the shootings on a turf war created after his officers took guns off the streets. He also criticized State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle for taking too long to close out her investigations, ham-stringing his ability to speak about the shootings.
Friction over the shootings intensified as the number of incidents grew. The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union called for a federal investigation. In late February, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson asked U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, to look into Miami police policies involving deadly force.
Regalado also requested an investigation, in August.
On Tuesday, Wilson called the investigation “a step in the right direction.” “I think it’s important because of the injustice that happened,” Wilson told The Herald. “I want [Miami police] to respect each other, and drop the racist tactics in training.”
The ACLU praised the development. “We have a crisis in this community where the police department is too quick to use deadly force, especially aimed at young black men, and it doesn’t have the mechanism to control itself,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
Locally, the state attorney’s office has closed only one criminal review, clearing the officer in the Moore shooting. Police said Moore disobeyed an order to stay put, and returned to his car where officers thought they saw him holding a shiny object, possibly a weapon. No weapon was found at the scene.
The other men killed by police were Joell Lee Johnson, Tarnorris Tyrell Gaye, Gibson Junior Belizaire, Brandon Foster, Lynn Weatherspoon, and McNeil, who was followed by police from a lounge on Northwest 79th Street. McNeil’s friend, Kareem Williams, was shot too, but survived.
The Justice investigation into Miami police will be the 18th being conducted by the Obama administration, which has stepped up civil rights investigations across the country. The federal effort has won praise from advocacy groups and experts on police brutality.
Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said recently that the investigations into local police are “really a cornerstone of our work.” He was speaking to reporters about a Justice report on Puerto Rico, which accused officers of widespread brutality, unconstitutional arrests and targeting people of Dominican descent. That followed a Justice Department report in March that said the New Orleans Police Department repeatedly violated constitutional rights by using excessive force, illegally arresting people and targeting black and gay residents.