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Protest Too Much

Larry Handfield is chairperson of Miami's Civilian Investigative Panel
Forrest Norman

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.

 

Other panel members seem ready to proceed with the investigation, regardless of individual testimony. "We investigate complaints, but we are also able to advise on general policy," says McAliley. She admits, though, that "right now our legal advice comes from an assistant city attorney whose office probably will be defending some of the lawsuits that come out of this, so I'm very anxious to have our own attorney."

CIP chairman Handfield has a $674,000 annual operating budget to work with, and says he'll hire an attorney and two investigators as soon as possible.

"All the [job applications] were due Monday [January 19], so we should have somebody in the next month," says Handfield in typically measured fashion. The Miami native (whose penchant for doing splits as a drum major at Carol City High School does not, apparently, translate into a flamboyant public persona) speaks in a monotone while running the meetings, and has the knack of a natural politician for sounding masterful while divulging little. At the public hearing Handfield was mostly silent until the end, when he made a statement that seemed tailored for attending reporters: "Our task is historical, difficult, and challenging. When you have the power to issue a subpoena, it is a power we cannot abuse. Nor should we be reluctant to use it when we have the proper cause to use it. Please understand our job is to be fair, thorough, and unbiased."

Handfield tried to adjourn after reading this statement, but McAliley interrupted him to ask for an update on hiring an attorney and investigators. "I tried to get a discussion going on how we are going to move forward with this," McAliley says. "We don't have a committee system, and because of the Sunshine Laws, we can't meet separately to discuss issues. All our business is done at monthly meetings, so any decisions in between are made by the chairman. I was hoping to deal with some of the big decisions facing us." But Handfield assured McAliley that proper steps were being taken and gaveled the meeting without further discussion.

Thus the progress of the CIP and its investigation of local law enforcement is largely under Handfield's control. The successful trial lawyer -- a senior partner at Pitts, Handfield and Valentine -- is quietly integral to a number of high-profile situations. He chairs the Public Health Trust, a position he's held since February of 2003. Handfield has defended clients such as former county Commissioner James Burke and former state Rep. and Opa-locka Mayor Willie Logan, and has been quoted frequently over the last two decades as president of the Black Lawyers Association. He's managed to attain publicity without notoriety, perhaps by feeding reporters the kind of somnolent rhetoric that sounds wise but not incendiary.

Courtroom tactics are another matter, however, and Handfield pulled no punches in the 1993 trial of a vacationing black couple arrested in the Keys after being pulled over for speeding and charged with obstructing police. Handfield argued that the couple were mistreated because they were black, and addressed the jury thusly: "You didn't wake up this morning in Nazi Germany. This is not a police state."

A similar sentiment was expressed time and again by protesters at the CIP's public hearing, and while some activists accused the panel of being lackeys, no one took any direct shots at Handfield. The chairman has worked on both sides of the law-enforcement fence, as a defense attorney and in the early Eighties as an assistant state attorney. He has prosecuted and defended police officers, and his impartiality is so far unquestioned.

There is already grumbling, however, about the next CIP meeting. On February 5, the panel will hear from Timoney and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. The two will present the results of their internal investigation into the FTAA summit, a move already being criticized by MAD as "an inverting of a process where victims should feel free to present their stories."

Even McAliley wonders about the decision to cede the podium to Diaz and Timoney: "I have to question whether this is a forum for the CIP or a forum for the chief and the mayor."

 


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