Miami Cops Keep Refusing to Use Their Body Cameras, Oversight Panel Warns

City of Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina
City of Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina City of Miami Police

For years, the Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP) has been warning the Miami Police Department that its cops keep refusing to use their body cameras. Despite the fact that more than $1 million in federal and local public money had been spent on the cameras, the CIP — an independent group that looks into complaints against police — found in 2016 that dozens of cops still weren't recording or uploading footage. In 2017, the CIP criticized MPD a second time for not fixing the problem.

But today MPD cops still aren't properly recording their encounters with the public, the CIP says. In a letter New Times obtained, the panel sent newly minted MPD Chief Jorge Colina a detailed list of cases in which officers were caught without body cameras and asked him to take action to ensure video evidence is actually being recorded.

"The panel is concerned about the lack of compliance with orders regarding the Body Worn Camera policy," the May 16 letter reads.

In response, the chief says he doesn't believe the CIP's complaints are fair or accurate. "We have a mechanism in place to constantly do random integrity/compliance checks," Colina explains in a text message.

But CIP says whatever systems the department has in place aren't working. Of the ten cases involving body cams examined in the past year, the CIP noted that in five incidents, cops either didn't record or didn't upload footage. In three additional cases, camera footage was either only partially recorded, recorded too late, or not provided to investigators in a timely fashion.

That left only two incidents in which cameras were used properly — and in both cases, the CIP noted the footage actually exonerated officers from complaints.

"The panel recognizes that it only examines those matters which result in a complaint," reads the letter, which is signed by CIP Chair Eileen Damaso. "However, it believes that the policy governing the use of the cameras is not being strictly followed."

The CIP urged Chief Colina to "develop disciplinary procedures" to ensure that MPD cops actually record footage.

But he dismissed the CIP's findings and claimed the panel "did not have accurate information" about whether officers were being allowed to misuse their body cams.

"We have issued more discipline than I would like, but we will continue to follow progressive discipline until we reach 100 percent compliance," Colina says. The chief adds that the department has issued "more discipline in six months than all of last year." (New Times has asked the department for the exact number of officers who've been disciplined for body-camera violations.)

Colina, who was head of MPD's internal affairs bureau, has been chief for about six months since being appointed by Mayor Francis Suarez following Rodolfo Llanes' retirement. When he took over, Colina embraced body cameras as one of his biggest policies, and the chief says he still stands behind the technology.

"Everyone here knows I'm a huge advocate for the cameras, and eventually everyone will have one," Colina tells New Times. (By 2019, about half of the department's 1,300 officers are expected to be outfitted with body cams.)

But Colina's first six months as chief have been marred by a list of questionable incidents, including an officer being charged with assault for taking a kick at a man's head and a case in which video appeared to show a police cruiser chasing a motorcyclist at high speeds before the biker crashed and died after falling from a highway overpass. Last month, Mayor Suarez held a news conference commending MPD for arresting two suspects in the murder of a Liberty City teen — before the department had to sheepishly admit hours later it had gotten the wrong guys.

In response to Colina's comments today, CIP Executive Director Cristina Beamud said that, because the CIP typically reviews cases that are at least three months old, it's certainly plausible that Colina has pushed his cops to better comply with the body-camera rules. She simply said the CIP hasn't seen evidence of any change yet.

"It is possible that things have improved in the last three months and we just aren’t aware of it yet," Beamud said by phone today. "Maybe it’s true that he has now improved this as a result of these audits he says he's conducting."

Beamud also said that in order to better track whether cops are using their body cams, the CIP created a new complaint classification this year to more easily investigate claims of improper body-cam usage. Before that, body-cam failures were just classified as "improper procedure" complaints, she said.

But evidence also suggests there are still repeat offenders within MPD who don't seem to enjoy wearing their cameras. Take, for instance, Officer Shane Tardieu: The CIP sustained two complaints against him this past May and June; in both cases, Tardieu should've been recording body-cam footage but didn't. He was assigned a body cam March 2, 2017.

This past May, the CIP sustained a complaint by a local auto-shop owner who said Tardieu had improperly towed his car, acted aggressively toward his employee (a retired cop), and cursed at the former cop repeatedly. The CIP slapped Tardieu for failing "to use his body camera," but auto-shop security cameras caught the entire incident. Tardieu told internal affairs investigators that the retired cop had insulted him, but the CIP wrote that surveillance video instead seemed to show Tardieu acting aggressively. The CIP sustained an "improper procedure" complaint against the officer for failing to turn on his recorder.

In June, the CIP hit Tardieu again. A civilian alleged the officer had grabbed him by both shoulders in the back of a police cruiser and shoved him. Though the CIP was unable to confirm the details of the incident, the panel did find that Tardieu was guilty of "improper procedure" after he and his partner failed to activate their body cams. In this case, internal affairs also reprimanded him for failing to use his camera.

In its letter to the chief, the CIP warns that cops' continued failure to use their recording devices seems suspicious.

"There have been occasions where members have wondered why the officers did not use their cameras and expressed a desire to draw an adverse reaction as to the underlying allegation," the letter reads.
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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.