County Could Create Police Watchdog Staffed by ACLU, NAACP, Muslims, and Immigrants

County Could Create Police Watchdog Staffed by ACLU, NAACP, Muslims, and Immigrants
Miami-Dade County Police
Across the nation, voters have asked for civilian-led police advisory panels, which review complaints about police separately from departments themselves. There's a simple reason: Internal affairs officers often act to shield problem cops from discipline, while civilian-led panels can act independently to weed out bad cops.

In Miami, voters set up such a board — the Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP) — after the Department of Justice condemned that city's police force for needlessly shooting too many black people. Miami-Dade County, meanwhile, also used to have its own Independent Review Panel (IRP), but that group has been defunct for the past eight years.

At the county commission's July 6 meeting, however, a group of community activists working for Miami-Dade will present a novel idea for new police oversight: Reinstate the review board, but staff it with 13 members chosen directly by civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Miami Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations, Equality Florida, and other activists groups.

"The goal there was to get a group of people who were not politically beholden to a particular commissioner," Jeanne Baker, an ACLU attorney who sat on the county advisory panel that wrote the new recommendation, tells New Times.

Members of the City of Miami CIP, by comparison, are chosen by the mayor, police chief, and county commission and tend to be political insiders or people close to the police department. In fact, New Times noted in May that Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes' choice to sit on the CIP board, William Scarola, was a former Miami cop who retired in 2016 with a record that included 19 citizen complaints and six use-of-force probes. He was once charged with battery in Broward County and also served alongside loudmouth Fraternal Order of Police President Javier Ortiz as the union's treasurer. Scarola is now in charge of "independently" deciding whether his former co-workers broke the rules.

It's somewhat surprising that the City of Miami maintains a civilian review panel, when the county, which operates the nation's eighth-largest police force, does not.

But that wasn't always the case: The old county IRP was defunded in 2009 during a Great Recession budget crunch. Commissioner Barbara Jordan has repeatedly asked the commission to bring the panel back. She represents portions of Miami Gardens and MDPD's heavily policed North Side District, where MDPD recently floated a dystopian plan to record the moves of every citizen in the district using spy planes developed by the Air Force during the Iraq War.

Jordan sponsored an ordinance that passed in November 2016 to convene this new panel to look for solutions to rebuild the civilian-oversight group.

If adopted as recommended, Miami-Dade's new panel, tentatively named the "Independent Community Panel" (ICP), would instead be staffed almost solely by police-watchdog organizations and groups representing communities unfairly targeted by cops, such as Muslims, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.

Nine of the 13 members would be staffed from:
  • The ACLU's Greater Miami chapter
  • The NAACP's Miami Chapter
  • The Spanish-American League Against Discrimination
  • The Florida Immigrant Coalition
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness
  • The Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews
  • The Miami Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations
  • Equality Florida
  • Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyama (Haitian Women of Miami)
In addition, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the Miami-Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police would be given a spot to appoint a ICP member. Another member would be appointed from an as-yet undetermined "youth leadership organization," and then the ICP's members would appoint a 13th "at-large" member. Members would not have to be part of the organizations but would just be recommended by those groups.

The report recommends the new ICP be staffed with six individuals, including an investigator, and be given an initial budget of $750,000 per year.

(During negotiations over the county's $7 billion budget for 2017 last September, the county debated, but ultimately declined, to refund the old review panel.)

Baker tells New Times the idea largely just came about because county Commissioner Barbara Jordan asked members of those groups to figure out how to revamp the defunct IRP. At the time, she said the group didn't even think it was all that novel to staff the review panel using recommendations from civil rights organizations, as opposed to county commissioners.

That sort of staffing makeup, if implemented, would give oversight powers to the very groups of people who most often report being harassed by the police and who, according to data, are disproportionately targeted, namely black people, Muslims, and immigrants.

It's unclear if any other major-city review panels work like this: Members of New York City's Citizen Complaint are appointed by the mayor and a board of supervisors. San Francisco's board also works similarly. Earlier this year, activists complained that a move to appoint a police union representative to head that city's police commission reeked of "cronyism." It's unclear if any big-city review panel has ever leaned so heavily on civil rights groups.

But it's important to note that the new Miami-Dade County recommendations are just that: recommendations. After the report is presented to the commission next week, it's up to commissioners to actually set up an ICP. And it's almost a guarantee that, without major public input, the Miami-Dade Commission will water this plan down: It's overwhelmingly staffed by pro-"safety" Republicans, including Joe Martinez, a former county cop.

It's also unclear whether the ICP would be given investigative powers or the ability to punish officers.

Likewise, the City of Miami's panel was recently dealt a blow at the Florida Supreme Court: Years ago, the Fraternal Order of Police sued the City of Miami and alleged the CIP did not have the power to subpoena officers during complaint investigations. Last week, the state Supreme Court ruled this was true, but only in narrow instances: The Supreme Court barred the CIP from subpoenaing officers who are under investigation, but did not stop the CIP from demanding other forms of evidence from other sources.

Despite the claims of the union's president, Ortiz, who has a personal vendetta against the CIP, the Supreme Court ruling did not "invalidate" the CIP in any way. In fact, the opposite is true: The judges actually affirmed that civilian-oversight panels have a right to exist in Florida. (In fact, the Miami CIP has actually been operating without subpoena power for years, which means the court loss wasn't such a big deal.) Miami's CIP can investigate and sustain complaints against cops who break departmental rules, but can only "recommend" punishments — it's up to the police department to voluntarily do what the the CIP asks.

Baker, who helped write the county's new recommendation report, notes that any new panel the county might set up must conform to the Supreme Court's decision.

"But they affirmed the legitimacy of civilian oversight," she says. "Some of the press coverage gave people the impression it was a big loss. But these panels have a right to exist."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.