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Miami's Independent Police Oversight Board Fights for Its Right to Investigate Rogue Cops

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This morning in a courtroom in Tallahassee, the seven justices of the state's Supreme Court will hear a case that should be of interest to any Floridian concerned about bad cops.

At stake is the question of whether citizens have the right to investigate police or whether we should trust them to police themselves. The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments from attorneys representing Miami's Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), which independently investigates reports of officer misconduct, and from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which believes Florida law prohibits such independent boards from snooping around in police business.

"Basically, the police are saying only the police can police the police," says John Quick, a lawyer representing the CIP. "They're essentially telling the residents of the City of Miami that, although they want oversight from outside the police department, the statutes don't allow for that."

The city's Civilian Investigative Panel was created in 2001 after public outrage over a series of escalating scandals and deadly shootings involving Miami cops.

The panel reviews complaints that have already been investigated (and usually closed) by the Miami Police Department's internal affairs department, as well as new cases filed by residents. The CIP's staff independently investigates the claims and refers its findings to the 11-member panel, which decides based on the evidence whether the officer followed city policy. The CIP issues its own findings, but it has no teeth: Its findings are simply recommendations to the police department.

Though still limited, that authority is what's being challenged today in court. The case reaches the Florida Supreme Court after several years of lower court rulings and appeals.

The legal battle began with a traffic stop in 2009, when MPD Cmdr. Freddy D'Agostino — then a lieutenant — pulled over a Broward County prosecutor in a traffic stop she later claimed was harassing and dangerous, nearly causing her to crash. The CIP opened an investigation and sent a subpoena to D'Agostino to testify in front of the panel's complaints committee.

But D'Agostino didn't play ball. The police union took up his case, arguing that an officer's own police department is the only one with authority to investigate complaints. D'Agostino filed a court petition to kill the subpoena, seeking permission to ignore the request for him to testify.

As of now, the courts have sided with the CIP, which won back subpoena powers in a court ruling last March. But Fraternal Order of Police President Javier Ortiz says he's confident that ruling will be overturned by the state Supreme Court.

"There is no doubt the Fraternal Order of Police will prevail in this case," he says. "The Civilian Investigative Panel cannot supersede an officer's constitutional rights or the Officer Bill of Rights."

Although the case has roots in Miami, the court's ruling will set a precedent for other civilian oversight boards across the Sunshine State. Quick says if the justices rule in favor of the police union, a board such as the CIP would be allowed only to review the police department's own internal investigations, not to perform its own.

"This would have a statewide impact," he says. "Any police oversight board within the state... it would limit their ability to hold the officers accountable and limit their access to any sort of independent information because the police would control the investigation."

Daniel Suarez, a six-year member of the CIP who resigned in December to run for Miami City Commission, says a ruling in favor of the panel would affirm the will of city residents who voted it into existence in 2001.

"The CIP was created by the voters. The only one that has a problem is the union," he says. "We need more accountability, and that's exactly what I've been fighting for over the last six years."

Although oral arguments will be held today, it could be months, or even a year, before the justices release an opinion. In the meantime, Quick says the CIP retains its ability to subpoena officers and other witnesses during its investigations.

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