Protest Too Much

Tongues still wag over FTAA arrests, but does the Civilian Investigative Panel have teeth?

Miami's Civilian Investigative Panel emerged from the city's urban battleground in 2001, born of outrage over fatal police shootings, a perceived heavy-handedness by cops during the Elian Gonzalez standoff, and the general sentiment that officers were running roughshod over minority communities. The panel's function -- the CIP has the power to subpoena documents and testimony, but can only make recommendations on police department discipline and policy -- emerged from a year-long battle between a coalition of civil rights groups and police and Miami city officials. Some government types, including then-police Chief Raul Martinez, resisted the idea of an oversight board until the public clamor became too loud to ignore. Having teetered on the verge of irrelevance, the panel now finds itself enmeshed in a massive inaugural investigation that chairman Larry Handfield calls a trial by fire.

In the two months since the arrest of more than 200 protesters at the Free Trade Area of the Americas ministerial, the CIP has endured mounting criticism from the media and activists and the resignation of one panelist. At one meeting members were briefly addressed and berated by Miami Police Chief John Timoney; then the panel held a public hearing where it was alternately harangued for a perceived lack of impartiality and exhorted to come down hard on power-crazed police. All this, and the CIP hasn't yet hired a lawyer, who will be needed in order to exercise the panel's vaunted subpoena power. The CIP also has money in its budget for two investigators, but neither position has yet been filled.

With about 150 people in attendance, the January 15 public hearing at Miami City Hall threatened to devolve into farce. Before the meeting started, representatives of Miami Activist Defense (MAD) read a statement bemoaning the CIP's lack of enforcement power and indicating that they (along with the American Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyers Guild) have advised activists facing criminal trials or considering civil suits not to file complaints with the CIP, as doing so would jeopardize pending legal action. They also criticized panel member Peter Roulhac, chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, who publicly lauded Timoney shortly after the FTAA. Roulhac resigned from the CIP January 16.

Panel members looked a bit shell-shocked staring down the barrels of TV cameras and taking in the fiery oratory -- local AFL-CIO president Fred Frost got the crowd riled up, and several other speakers received standing ovations.

It became clear that the CIP would not just be investigating individual complaints alleging specific misconduct by police (the panel has received 29 complaints, 15 of which are FTAA-related). "The CIP has the ability to investigate any conduct by the police without individual testimony," notes Naomi Archer of the Save Our Civil Liberties Campaign. Archer's group, like MAD, sprang up following the FTAA. Indeed the fracas created by the arrest of protesters seems to have launched interest in the sort of grassroots activist movements that have heretofore been largely absent in Miami.

Archer says the CIP can gather enough actionable material by using its subpoena power and combing the Internet and print media to conduct a thorough investigation without doing mass intake of personal accounts.

At the hearing, panel member Donald Bierman lamented the lack of individual complaints being filed, though plenty of people gave general testimony. He also raised eyebrows by saying that, as a criminal defense attorney, he would have no problem advising a client with a pending trial to testify before the panel. Bierman seemed skeptical of those who testified, asking Frost if union members had invited any "outsiders" to march with them. Frost's reply, that the march was permitted for union members as well as numerous others, was met with a disappointed sigh from Bierman. When ACLU counsel Rosalind Matos-Dammert testified that police had ignored a public records request for FTAA planning documents, Bierman asked: "Had you submitted an agreement to not share that information with any protesters?" He was reminded, by several people in the audience as well as the speaker, that they were discussing a public records request.

Bierman told Frost he'd heard a nasty rumor that the labor unions allowed nonunion protesters into their march on Thursday, November 20. "If that's not true, and I hope it's not, I'd like to hear it," Bierman said.

"Ninety different organizations were part of our permitted march," Frost explained. "Those people were welcomed in. But when we tried to get into the amphitheater the police stopped [nonunion] people from going in there.... When officers saw people they thought might have looked a little different than you and I, they determined that they were the evil element and stopped them from going in."

Panel members requested written complaints at the hearing, and were repeatedly rebuffed by speakers who insisted that there was enough material in the public domain for the CIP to decide what it needed to request from police. Panelists seemed surprised to learn about all the photographs and video on the Internet, and equally surprised to hear that the police department had its own video and photos. CIP executive director Shirley Richardson told the panel that she had requested all official police photos and video, but had received no response. CIP vice chairperson Janet McAliley suggested they subpoena the materials. "That's something that, as chairman, I will undertake," Handfield replied.

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