Line of Fire
When Robert Parker woke up on June 16, cooling rain clouds were rolling in. But the day ended up being a hot one for Parker, Miami-Dade County's relatively new top cop. Demonstrators in Liberty City were out protesting the death of a black man one of his police officers had shot in the back. The county commission was scheduled to grill Parker that day about a study on racial-profiling practices within his department, and a small army of angry black clergymen was preparing to descend on county hall to complain about the department's use of stun guns.
It was the perfect urban storm, a tempest of events that would be the first major test of his year-long tenure. Even-tempered and ramrod straight, Parker faced a challenge and an opportunity: His response would define the quality of his leadership and provide insight into the direction in which the 3000-officer department was headed.
For several reasons it was critical that Parker rise to the occasion. The policies that would emerge from these turbulent exchanges could literally be a matter of life and death for some people. Additionally Parker desperately needed to dispel rumor and speculation and establish that he, not former director and now mayor Carlos Alvarez, was firmly in charge of the department. (Parker declined comment for this story.)
The Taser stun-gun issue ended up dominating the day, pushing the racial-profiling report off the county commission's agenda. It has yet to resurface. That's too bad. Parker has some explaining to do and he's taking way too long to do it.
In 2000 the county commission hired an outside agency to study whether Miami-Dade Police stopped drivers based on race. The Alpert Group, a respected law-enforcement research firm, spent four years examining data regarding police traffic stops. Its resulting study found no evidence of overt racial bias when officers actually pulled over a motorist. But once pulled over, blacks were far more likely than whites or Hispanics to be ticketed, have their cars searched, and have computer checks run on their license plates.
Black drivers and their passengers were also twice as likely to be arrested as whites or Hispanics, apparently because police ran more warrant checks on them. You can't blame a cop for arresting someone who has an outstanding warrant; in fact it's mandatory. But police do have discretion in deciding whether to run a warrant check. If officers were indeed conducting more warrant checks on black drivers, the department needed to determine whether the policy of discretion should be revised. Mandatory warrant checks on all drivers? (Researchers were able to review only some 60 percent of the warrant-based arrests they requested; Parker's department didn't supply the other 40 percent. "Our analysis of arrests was limited by a significant amount of missing information," the Alpert Group wrote in the report's executive summary. Was the department intentionally obstructing the research? I'd like an answer to that question.)
When the study was completed, Parker and his department sat on it for nearly six months. The department released the document only after I submitted a public-records request to see it, a request the department initially denied. Then the ACLU threatened to sue the department on behalf of New Times unless police officials could cite reasons for denying the request. The department could not, so Parker held a press conference May 2 and released the Alpert Group's study.
But other than remarking that "the report presents a great opportunity to review and train our personnel," Parker has not said what, if anything, he intends to do to address the study's findings. It's been almost a year. That has annoyed Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who says, "I need the chief to tell me how he is going to remedy this, to ensure this does not happen."
Parker must stop taking advantage of delays and answer that question. He needs to let it be known he will deal with this and how he'll do it. A good start would be more training so officers are aware of their subtle biases, and standardized criteria for warrants checks. The Alpert Group also recommended maintaining detailed traffic-stop records in order to monitor the issue. Sounds good. But no word if that's being done. Parker should know he doesn't answer to only the county commission. Miami-Dade is full of people waiting to hear from him. After all, he's in charge of the largest police force in the state.
Likewise with the Taser issue. He must put the community's fears to rest. Otherwise he'll end up with a Taser policy written by the Community Relations Board, the Independent Review Panel, and some county commission subcommittee.
It's not that Parker hasn't tried to defend his department's Taser policy. He stood before commissioners and assured them the policy is sufficient. But he's defending the status quo; to residents of Liberty City, the status quo looks pretty suspect. This past October county cops zapped a six-year-old boy who was cutting himself with a piece of glass in an elementary school. Even Governor Bush wondered aloud why a roomful of adults couldn't gain control of a six-year-old boy. In May a man died after cops shot him with a stun gun, although his death was allegedly caused by the cocaine in his system. On June 14 a county police officer accidentally shot her partner with a Taser dart while they confronted a burglar. The officer claims the burglar then tried to take the Taser gun from her, so she had to use her other gun, the one with bullets, and killed him.
These were just some of the incidents that prompted the black ministers to demand action at county hall.
Here again it's essential that Parker take the initiative and say, "Listen. One of my officers sent 50,000 volts of electricity into a six-year-old. Another one of my cops zapped her partner accidentally. Think about it -- the problem is not with the technology. The problem is with the people. This is a training issue. I need to send everybody who's carrying one of these things back to school."
If he's not going to beef up training, the Taser use policy should be revised. When police shot the six-year-old, the department had no age limit on potential Taser targets. Parker asserted police need discretion during confrontations. That makes some sense. It's not likely a cop on the street is immediately going to be able to determine a suspect's age. In contrast, the City of Miami Police Department does have an age limit. Some experts say the best compromise is a policy that takes into account height, weight, and behavior when dictating Taser use.
Now some critics are calling for a moratorium on the department's use of Tasers. If that tool is taken away from the cops, some unlucky bastard is going to die from a bullet that didn't have to be fired. Parker will only have himself to blame.
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