Within the next few months, the City of Miami Police Department (MPD) will have a new chief of police, following the imminent retirement of the current chief, Jorge Colina. Yesterday, city-appointed volunteer panelists interviewed the eight finalists for Colina's position, bringing the city one step closer to finding its next top cop.
Colina announced his retirement last year after a summer of civil unrest, saying he'd step down at the end of January.
After the announcement, the MPD received over 30 applications from across the nation. The list has since been whittled down to eight applicants, including five who currently work for the department. Their interviews were broadcast yesterday on the City of Miami's YouTube channel.
Aside from a few softball questions, the volunteer interviewers asked the potential chiefs for their thoughts on topics including police oversight, the use of excessive force, and how officers should approach people experiencing homelessness or living with mental illness.
At a time of public reckoning for police brutality and misconduct, many Miamians have called for more independent oversight of the police. In Miami, the Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP) reviews allegations of misconduct by the city's officers, but CIP members say their recommendations often fall on deaf ears at the police department.
In his interview yesterday, MPD Assistant Chief Manuel Morales, who is applying for a promotion to chief, admitted that there's a disconnect and said he hopes to bridge the gap between the two entities.
"As chief, I intend to mend that broken relationship [between the department and the CIP]. Right now, that relationship is adversarial," Morales conceded.
The effects of last year's protests for racial justice and calls for defunding police departments hung over the interviews of most of the applicants, all of whom alluded to a need to regain public trust. While most tiptoed around the subject of police brutality, DeShawn Beaufort of the Philadelphia Police Department was alone in mentioning victims of police violence by name.
"With what has gone on across the country with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and, in Philadelphia, Walter Wallace, policing is at a precipice. It has to change," Beaufort said. "We have to hold ourselves accountable as an agency. You cannot arrest your way out of a problem."
Applicants said they would prioritize de-escalation training for officers to avoid violence with suspects, as well as crisis training to better deal with individuals in a mental-health emergency. Several interviewees, including Jason Lando of the Pittsburgh Police Department, said officers are not equipped to be the go-to responders in cases with a mentally ill person and should instead work in tandem with social services.
"There are certain things police shouldn't be primary responders for, things like drug abuse and mental illness. I'd like to explore ways of making police secondary responders," Lando said. "I'd rather talk to someone with a doctorate rather than an officer with one week of academy training."
MPD Assistant Chief Cherise Gause echoed Lando's sentiment that the MPD's current training for mental-health crises is not enough.
"Just incarceration is not the answer. I don't think 40-hour crisis training is enough. I would love to see us collaborate with actual mental-health professionals to give actual services instead of Band-Aid treatment," Gause said.
Similar sentiments were voiced by most applicants when talking about Miami's homeless population — that a stopgap approach of arresting unhoused people does not fix the root causes of homelessness, and police need to find services instead of jail cells.
But not every applicant was as outwardly amenable to the homeless.
"Homeless encampments are a public-health hazard that brings disease. I will continue to work with other city entities to clean up and dismantle these encampments," MPD Deputy Chief Ronald Papier said.
While some diseases have been seen spreading in homeless encampments in other cities because of poor sanitary conditions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance saying that camps should not be dismantled during the COVID-19 pandemic and that officials should leave homeless individuals where they are, in order to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
The interviewees also opined on the use of racial and ethnic data in policing and discussed how to ensure police aren't targeting specific racial groups by examining statistics on arrests and traffic stops.
"It's important to make sure policing is consistent with the area you're in and you're not over-policing certain areas," Gause said. "You have to understand that just because you're in an area of high crime, that doesn't mean everyone is a criminal."
Miami City Manager Art Noriega, who will ultimately choose Colina's successor, tells New Times that Colina will likely stay on past the end of January while Noriega finishes conducting additional interviews and chooses the new chief.
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