A Wasted Life

Will Eddie Lee Macklin accomplish more in death than he did in life? Don't count on it.

"Over my dead body." In an odd way it's an old saying that now works for both John Rivera and Eddie Lee Macklin.

The twenty-year-old Macklin was shot and killed last month by a plainclothes Miami-Dade police officer following a Martin Luther King Day celebration in Liberty City. The officer, James Johns, was part of an anti-robbery unit working the celebration when he spotted Macklin driving a car reported stolen.

Johns claims that as he approached the vehicle, Macklin sped forward and struck him, compelling Johns to fire in self-defense. Other witnesses maintain the officer jumped onto the hood of Macklin's car and needlessly shot him. The incident is now being investigated by the Miami-Dade Police Department.

Race immediately became an issue since Macklin was black and the officer is a white Hispanic. Within 24 hours of the shooting, leaders in the black community renewed their calls for granting subpoena power to the Independent Review Panel (IRP), the civilian board that investigates complaints against county employees, including police officers. "Any entity with the power to take a life should be overseen by civilians," argued H.T. Smith, the attorney and civil-rights advocate.

Congresswoman Carrie Meek echoed those feelings. "With subpoena powers the review board will be vastly improved, but it will still only be a Band-Aid, because we need to prevent these shootings in the first place," she said. The NAACP and other community groups also have cited Macklin's death as a reason to grant the IRP broader authority.

Macklin's death came at a time when the City of Miami was creating a civilian board to review complaints against its own police department. The Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP) was approved overwhelmingly by voters last fall, and the Miami City Commission is now finalizing its makeup and scope. One issue already has been decided: It will have subpoena power. More than 70 percent of voters in last year's city election decided the CIP should have that authority.

But anyone who thinks the Macklin shooting will automatically lead to increased powers for the county's IRP misses three fundamental differences between the city and the county.

First, the City of Miami's police department has been battered by scandals for several years, from the rampant use of so-called throw-down guns in bad shootings to a senior official being caught in a prostitution sting. By contrast the county police department has a reputation for being more professional and disciplined. It will take a lot more than the Macklin shooting to change that perception.

Second, the CIP won subpoena power because its supporters came from all ethnic groups. In the past, attempts to create a CIP in the city failed because it was perceived as a "black issue." Elian Gonzalez changed that. Following the raid to remove the boy from his Little Havana home, a series of disturbances -- miniriots -- broke out in several neighborhoods. Miami police responded with a tremendous show of force.

Unlike past civil disturbances involving blacks in Overtown and Liberty City, this time it was Cuban Americans who were being roughed up by police officers. Miami City Commissioner Tomas Regalado was among those protesters who nearly ended up being arrested. His encounter with law enforcement instantly changed his thoughts regarding civilian oversight of the city's police.

"There was a tremendous amount of resentment about the Elian situation," says Miami City Commissioner Art Teele, who was a county commissioner from 1990 to 1996. "And it opened this unique window in which we could finally create this board to provide oversight for the police department. It was no longer a “black issue' in the City of Miami. It was a citizens' issue in which blacks and Cubans came together. In the county, though, it is still considered a black issue."

Unfortunately for those advocating an enhanced Independent Review Panel, there has not been a similar event involving county police that would motivate the Cuban-American community or individual Cuban-American county commissioners to demand a stronger IRP. "The conduct of the county police in the Elian matter was exactly what the Cuban community wanted," Teele says. "The police did nothing about the protesters. The police in the county had a hands-off attitude." To put it another way: Until county cops start gunning down Cubans, little is likely to change.

Finally there is John Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association. Rivera is adamant in his opposition to subpoena power being granted to the IRP. "On this issue we draw a line in the sand," he declares. "On this issue you are either with us or you are against us. Anyone who supports subpoena power for the IRP will never have our support. Never. We make no bones about it, and we let everyone know that is where we stand."

Rivera's words carry weight. As he readily proclaims, the endorsement of the PBA is arguably the most sought-after endorsement in the county. All politicians want to be seen as law-and-order candidates, and the PBA stamp of approval is the easiest way to convey that message.

Rivera's organization has something else every politician desires: money and manpower. Its political action committee can paper the county in billboards, yard signs, and bus boards for the candidates it supports. "Through our phone banks I can reach almost 5000 homes in an afternoon to get my position across," he says. "We've got an army we can get out."

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