Department of Justice releases findings in Miami police-involved shootings

DOJ finds Miami Police Department engaged in pattern of excessive force

MIAMI - The U.S. Justice Department has found for the second time in a decade that the Miami Police Department engaged in a pattern of excessive use of force in shootings of suspects, including seven black men fatally shot by officers over an eight-month period ending in 2011.

The department's Civil Rights Division released the findings of an 18-month investigation Tuesday and said it will seek a federal court order to ensure necessary department changes are made permanent and overseen by a judge. That did not happen following a 2002 civil rights probe that also found Miami officers used excessive force.

"We are disappointed to find that the problem is back," said Roy Austin, deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights.

The investigation began in November 2011, shortly after the firing of former Police Chief Miguel Exposito (pictured above) amid an outcry from black community leaders about the shootings. Exposito had created specialized tactical squads that focused intensely on high-crime areas, but also increased the likelihood of violent confrontations.

"It wasn't about him (Exposito) 100 percent because the culture came from before," said Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado (pictured below). "What made it worse was the tactical units, people that were just looking out for crimes, and they were quick to react, and because they were quick to react, things happened. I think that the best thing that happened to the police department is that the new chief dismantled the tactical units and with that, we've minimized. Remember, we've only had two incidents in the last two years."

His replacement as chief, Manuel Orosa, has dismantled those units and changed tactics, leading to a sharp decrease in shootings since 2012, the report noted.

In a statement Tuesday, Orosa (pictured left) said he has implemented many reforms and will work with the Justice Department to make changes permanent, although he added many findings needed unspecified clarification.

"The Miami Police Department will strive to continue providing professional police services in accordance with the tenets of the Constitution of the United States of America," Orosa said.

Between 2008 and 2011, officers purposely shot at people on 33 occasions, three of which the department itself found unjustified. In contrast, investigators noted that during one 20-month period in 2002-04, no Miami police officer fired a gun at a suspect.

READ: Miami Police Department findings letter

"Although MPD appeared to correct course after our first investigation, many of the systemic problems that we previously identified returned to root deeply in MPD's practices," said Roy L. Austin Jr, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. "Our findings should serve as a catalyst to help MPD and the city of Miami restore the community's confidence in fair, effective and accountable law enforcement. We look forward to collaborating with Chief Orosa, Mayor Regalado and the people of Miami to create and implement a comprehensive, court-enforceable plan to ensure sustainable reform."

"After a careful and thorough review of the facts and circumstances surrounding a series of police-involved shootings, the Civil Rights Division found that the police department in fact engaged in such prohibited conduct," said Wifredo Ferrer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. "Today, we are releasing the detailed findings of the investigation, with the dual goal of shining a light on past wrongs and – more importantly – setting a clear course for the future that will assure the residents of the city of Miami that this type of behavior will not be repeated in our city.  We commend Chief Orosa for recognizing some of the problems the Civil Rights Division found and for pursuing initiatives to address them.  We are confident that the findings and recommendations will be heeded, and will result in institutional long-term reform that will make our city and police force better than ever."

The Department of Justice's report noted that MPD didn't provide close supervision or hold officers accountable for their actions by failing to complete thorough, objective, and timely investigations of officer-involved shootings. For a significant number of the shootings, including one that occurred in 2008, MPD has not reached a conclusion internally as to whether the officer's firearm discharge was lawful and within policy.

The Justice Department found that MPD's failure to complete investigations of officer-involved shootings undermined accountability and exposed their officers and the community to risks that might have been addressed through prompt, corrective action, noting that several investigations remained open for more than three years. 

READ: ACLU's statement on DOJ findings | Miami Fraternal Order of Police's statement

Only seven officers were responsible for a third of the 2008-11 shootings, three of which were found unjustified by internal police investigators. No officers have been charged criminally. One officer has been dismissed by the department after he shot and killed Travis McNeil, who was unarmed, and wounded an unarmed passenger

"I say thanks to the federal government for finally seeing things our way," said Sheila McNeil, Travis' mother. "It's like it happened yesterday to me. I miss my son very much, and I'm just glad it's coming to some type of conclusion. Maybe I can get some type of closure."

City of Miami Commissioner and mayoral candidate Francis Suarez released a statement, saying: "The Justice Department finding that the Miami Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of excessive use of force is another example of a city government out of control.

The mayor's failed leadership on the issue of crime has made Miami less safe.

The report is riddled with discussions of delay and mismanagement, which is characteristic of the Regalado administration.

The mayor needs to accept responsibility for this report and its findings, and for his failures of leadership on the issue of crime."

The Miami Police Department closed cases on DeCarlos Moore, shot and killed on July 5, 2010; Gibson Belzaire, shot and killed on August 14, 2010; Brandon Foster, shot and killed on December 16, 2010; and Lynn Weatherspoon, shot and killed on January 1, 2011. The four shootings were deemed justified by the department.

Two officers remain under investigation, said state attorney spokesman Ed Griffith.

The 2002 Justice Department probe began after 13 Miami police officers were indicted in conspiracy charges for planting evidence, including guns, to undermine investigations into four officer-involved shootings. Although the latest cases are not that egregious, Civil Rights Division investigators said, many of the same institutional problems were found both times.

Congresswoman Wilson issued the following statement, saying "Today's report is a step forward. The Justice Department confirmed that the Miami Police Department engaged in a pattern of excessive use of force between 2008 and 2011.

Mayor Regalado and Chief Orosa have moved forward with the implementation of new procedures. But we must be mindful of the fact that change happens slowly—it will take time to transform the culture that gave rise to these instances of injustice. Unless we take on the underlying causes of these acts, problems will persist regardless of leadership.

While it saddens me that the Miami Police Department has required two federal investigations in a period of 12 years, I am heartened that the outcome of the investigation will mean federal oversight of police operations and practices by a federal judge to ensure the execution and enforcement of remedies. This court-enforced intervention is rare, but I believe it will help to create meaningful change."

Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.