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Miami Voters Can Finally Give Teeth to Their Police Oversight Board

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By now, you've probably made up your mind in the most important race on this year's ballot. If you've been paying even a little attention, you know that medical marijuana is back up for a vote and that Florida's Amendment 1 solar initiative is actually a trick being pushed by utilities corporations.

But if you're a voter in Miami, there's another ballot measure you should care about: a charter amendment concerning the future of the city's Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), an independent board that reviews complaints about police.

Residents voted the panel into existence in 2002 after the Department of Justice began investigating a string of questionable police shootings. As written into the city's charter, the CIP is supposed to operate independently and act as a watchdog over the police department's own internal affairs (IA) process, which clears officers in an overwhelming number of misconduct cases. Complaints can be made directly to the CIP, and the panel also reviews closed IA cases for inaccuracies.

But the group has been criticized in the years since its inception, with critics (and even former staffers) arguing that the panel has no teeth and is often crippled by bureaucracy and a lack of cooperation from city officials.

For example, when members wanted to fire their attorney, Charles Mays, whom they accused of obstructing their independent investigations, the board needed the permission of the City Attorney's Office, which refused to grant permission. The CIP was forced to offer Mays a buyout to get rid of him.

Charter Amendment 3 would reaffirm the panel's independence and allow it to hire and fire its attorney and executive director without the city attorney's approval.

"In essence, it's trying to avoid wasting taxpayer money," CIP member Danny Suarez says. "Had we been able to fire Charles Mays, we wouldn't have had to pay his salary for the next year."

Suarez says the amendment also gives the panel more free rein to review the police department's policies and procedures long before they're put into effect. Currently, the CIP doesn't get to review new policies until 30 days before they're implemented, meaning it's effectively too late to make suggestions for revisions.

For instance, Suarez says that while the department's procedure requires officers to report when they deploy a Taser, it doesn't explicitly require cops to report when they've made a "drive stun," which is when the Taser is used up close like a stun gun. Though it's obvious when the probes of a Taser have been deployed, the only way to determine if it's been used for a "drive stun" is to download the internal log via USB.

"Had the departmental orders specified that after each shift or each week, the information on the Taser has to be downloaded and reviewed, I think that would effectively stop any misuse of a Taser," Suarez says.

Most important, the amendment should go far in shaping the CIP into the agency that voters wanted it to be almost 15 years ago.

"This is something the people of Miami voted on, and their votes are technically being ignored," Suarez says. "This affirms our independence to make our own decisions. It's sad to be letting down the people of Miami, but real oversight is only happening at a minimum."

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