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Miami-Dade Reconvenes Police Oversight Panel After Cops Argue It's "Not Needed"

Miami-Dade Reconvenes Police Oversight Panel After Cops Argue It's "Not Needed"EXPAND
Miami-Dade County Police Department
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Miami-Dade County Police Director Juan Perez, who runs America's eighth-largest force, stood in county hall today, put his mouth in front of a microphone, and claimed with a straight face that there is "no widespread mistrust" of his department. His officers are transparent, he said, and already subject to rigorous oversight. So there was no need for the county to revive its civilian oversight board, Perez argued.

None of that was true. Which is perhaps why the commission narrowly voted 7-5 today to reconvene the panel and provide it with at least $300,000 in local funding this year and $750,000 in future years. In light of the board's conservative leanings, the vote came as something of a shock — but Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who seems actively opposed to good ideas, has hinted he might veto the measure anyway.

The vote came over the strenuous objections of the police director, who told the commission that his "personal view" was that an independent oversight board was "not needed" in his department because "we already have oversight within our agency and by others from outside our agency."

But MDPD has repeatedly been accused of killing unarmed people for no reason and withholding crucial information from the public. Perez mentioned that use-of-force incidents have decreased in recent years, which is true, but many community and civil-rights organizations say that the department needlessly harasses and arrests black suspects in Liberty City, Overtown, Miami Gardens, and other majority black or low-income neighborhoods. The American Civil Liberties Union has long asked that the panel be brought back to provide a civilian-run chance to push back against abuse.

MDPD employs more than 2,900 sworn officers and 1,700 other employees, putting the department on par with other major-city police forces such as those in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, which all maintain some sort of civilian-oversight department. Reform advocates push for independent panels to investigate police complaints because the cops' own internal affairs units are known nationwide for being opaque, unresponsive, and focused mainly on protecting their own officers from legal punishment. MDPD's internal affairs unit is no different.

Miami-Dade County previously operated its own Independent Review Panel from 1980 to 2009 — it was killed after 29 years to save money amid a countywide budget crunch during the Great Recession. Commissioner Barbara Jordan, whose district includes the majority-black areas of Opa-locka and Miami Gardens, has been fighting for years to reconvene the panel. She sponsored today's resolution, which directed the county to use $300,000 in public-safety funds to revive the panel. (Fellow Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, the board's loudest liberal voice, also pushed hard for the measure.)

Naturally, the county's police union aggressively fought the measure. Steadman Stahl, the Dade County Police Benevolent Association's new president, also said he doesn't "think there is a distrust" of police in this community. (He also wished the board a happy Valentine's Day, eliciting groans from the audience.)

"Taking from the public-safety reserve is the wrong thing," he said. He instead suggested spending that money on new police cars and uniforms.

While the commission debated the measure, there was no shortage of downright boneheaded comments. Commissioner Joe Martinez, who is a former MDPD officer, tried to frame himself as a victim of the old panel's alleged abuses, claiming he and fellow officers "suffered" because civilians were able to criticize the job the cops were doing.

Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz, who was once pulled over for allegedly driving a motorcycle while drunk in Key West (though he beat the charges in court), suggested the department instead needs more money to pay for cops and supplies for some alleged public-safety problem despite the fact that crime in Miami-Dade is hitting all-time lows. (He then openly thanked MDPD cops for supporting him over the years.)

After comments from the police and local union, Commissioner Jordan admitted she "never expected to get support from the police department or the union." Knowing that, she said she intentionally made sure the department was at least involved in every step of the discussion to reconvene the panel.

Funding the board remained the biggest sticking point in today's debate: The county's conservative board members bristled at the idea of using police-department funding to pay for the review panel's work. But that decision was made at the county level, and Jordan suggested the mayor's office might have intentionally chosen that funding source in order to upset the police union and ensure the measure's failure.

"In terms of the source of the funding, I was upset when I learned about the source, because I saw the source as a means to defeat it," she said. She added, "All they had to put was 'general fund.' That's all they had to do."

Mayor Gimenez then spoke. He claimed that, because the county has already paid to institute a body-camera program, MDPD does not also need a civilian oversight board.

"I am convinced in the vast majority of cases of complaints against police officers, the police officer did the right thing," the mayor said. He added that he still "needed to be convinced of" the value of civilian oversight panels. The Miami Herald's Doug Hanks noted on Twitter that after Gimenez suggested he might veto the measure, the mayor then huddled with the delegation from the county's ultrapowerful police union.

"We are working on it," Stahl, the police union president, then tweeted. He added: "#ThinBlueLine."

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