A Wasted Life

"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."

If the PBA is an army, its warlord is Rivera. The man is a thug, a bare-knuckled street brawler who'd sooner die than pass up a good fight. And I mean that with all due respect, because I like Rivera. The members of his union pay him to be a thug -- to be their thug in the political arena. Miami-Dade politics isn't for lightweights, and Rivera's punches land hard. As a result most county commissioners, as well as the mayor, try to avoid conflicts with Rivera and the PBA, especially on the issue of subpoena power for the IRP.

"John Rivera is a major factor," agrees Teele. "The PBA is so much more engaged in the political process than their counterpart in the city, the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police]. The PBA stays in touch with commissioners, and they have a very strong voice."

Rivera admits he was dismayed that the FOP and its president, Al Cotera, didn't challenge efforts to create a civilian panel with subpoena power. "The FOP just chose not to fight," he sighs. "I'm so baffled by that."

In recent months Rivera has gone out of his way to attack the executive director of the IRP, Eduardo Diaz. "We don't care for the guy," grumbles Rivera. "He comes off like he is righteous and he wants to be fair to everyone, but he doesn't. He just wants to go after cops. He wants subpoena power in the worst way." (Diaz says he is used to Rivera's rhetoric.)

The IRP recently voted to move forward with a proposal that seeks subpoena power. Whether the county commission and the mayor will be willing to tackle the issue isn't clear. Last year Diaz says he met with representatives from Mayor Alex Penelas's office to review the IRP's plan to adopt subpoena power. One of the first questions he faced: Do you have the votes?

Diaz says the question was disheartening. Whether he has the commission votes or he doesn't, the issue should be discussed. "The political leadership in this county has to assume responsibility for its own actions," he admonishes. "They are going to have to realize that there are more votes in the community than there are [votes] controlled by the PBA."

But that's a warning few are likely to heed. Even several of the black county commissioners seem cautious about expanding the powers of the IRP, which currently cannot compel witnesses to appear and testify before it. Commissioner Dennis Moss wants to wait and see how the city's CIP operates before pushing for changes in the county. "I've not taken a position yet on subpoena power," he says.

Commissioner Dorrin Rolle supports granting subpoena power to the IRP but isn't sure of the timing or how such a proposal will be received by his fellow commissioners. "If this shooting reaches the point where the public doesn't accept the results of the [police department's] investigation, then I think we will be moving in that direction," he says.

Rolle acknowledges that the PBA has "tremendous clout on an issue like this." The trick will be rallying the public if the police investigation turns into a whitewash. Predicts Rolle: "If the public feels there are issues being swept under the rug, I think the outcry from the public will erode the power of the PBA."

But if the department's internal investigation is challenged only by the black community, the efforts to increase IRP power could be seen solely as a "black issue." Will Rolle have any support among his Cuban-American colleagues? "If the Cuban Americans on the commission feel we just want it because it's a black issue -- well, that's not true," he responds. "It's for the betterment of the whole community. Right now it's true that black men are being shot. But that can easily turn around and it can start being whites and Hispanics who are being shot."

As I said, unless that happens, nothing will change.