The Thick Blue Line

For now the notion of creating a civilian review panel with subpoena power to investigate the conduct of Miami-Dade County police is in the same condition as Eddie Lee Macklin. Dead.

The twenty-year-old black man was driving through Liberty City at the wheel of a 1999 Lincoln Continental last January 21 (Martin Luther King Day) when a plainclothes police anti-robbery squad found the car was reported stolen and tried to pull him over. According to police, an officer on foot yelled "Stop," was knocked onto the hood of the car, and then fired once through the windshield. Cause of death: a bullet.

The movement to empower a civilian panel to investigate incidents such as the Macklin shooting, as well as three other police shootings this year, officially sputtered to its demise last week (June 4) in county hall when commissioners decisively rejected two resolutions that each would have sent review-panel proposals to a public referendum this fall. Cause of death: lack of political will, confused leadership, and the belief held by all but the African-American community that the conduct of county police does not require special monitoring.

But what if there had been a videotape of the Macklin shooting, or indeed of any other police action that could be described as brutal, unfair, or racially motivated? Would that have generated the widespread community support, and the political push, to give proponents of civilian review the clout they crave?

Community activist Max Rameau thinks so. In a project he calls "Cop Watch," Rameau says he is seeking grant money to set up trained teams of volunteers who would be issued video cameras and trail police officers on patrol in the community. "The idea is to do surveillance," says Rameau, spokesman for the Coalition Against Police Brutality and Harassment. Months ago, Rameau says, after conferring with John DeLeon, then chairman of the Greater Miami chapter of the ACLU Florida, about the legal issues involved, he drew up a manual of operations that incorporates ideas from other communities where similar programs are conducted.

"Eventually we will get something on tape -- beatings, false arrest," he says. "But this is about prevention. This is just one of our options right now because we can't get the powers that be to cooperate. We have to re-center power around us. And my guess is that even though nobody wants to do anything when black men get shot in the back, the commission will leap into action the first time we do this."

Anticipating police reaction to his "Cop Watch" notion, Rameau offers a classic understatement: "If you think they don't like civilian review, they really won't like this."

They really don't. "It's bad guys trying to harass good guys," snaps Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association president John Rivera. "If they film anything, it's evidence, and officers will have to secure it. It's a prescription for further problems with the police." Rivera then called Rameau "a professional agitator."

Whatever comes of the "Cop Watch" idea, the debate over what, if anything, to do about investigating the actions of the Miami-Dade Police Department has spread anger, frustration, and disillusionment all around. "It's a stalemate," says Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, current president of the ACLU's Miami chapter. "The rest of the community isn't really ready to hear what it's like to be black in Miami-Dade County. And blacks don't have the political or financial power to shed light on their plight so real change can be made. And politicians just saw this as an opportunity to advance their own political interests."

Like Rameau and several others, Rodriguez-Taseff took part in several eleventh-hour meetings with county officials, including Mayor Alex Penelas, as the vote on the civilian-review-panel proposal neared. First, Commissioner Jimmy Morales summoned an invitation-only group of about twenty community leaders to his downtown law office on May 30 in an effort to find common ground. On the table then were two proposals. One, sponsored by Commissioner Dorrin Rolle and endorsed by Penelas, created a review panel in which subpoenas could be issued only after consultation with the State Attorney's Office. The community representatives vehemently opposed that.

The second measure, sponsored by ex-cop Commissioner Joe Martinez and endorsed by the PBA as well as by black and Hispanic officers' organizations, would have revamped the county's existing Independent Review Panel in such a way, charged community activists, that all of the nine-person board's black members could be excluded.

The two-hour meeting broke up, according to Rodriguez-Taseff, with everyone but the police representatives agreeing not to back either proposal. Nonetheless Morales says he was pleased "that we had started some dialogue with some frank and candid discussions" that could continue, perhaps under the auspices of the county's Community Relations Board.

Meanwhile, some black leaders, including Rameau and Brian Dennis of Brothers of the Same Mind, expressed particular disappointment over Rolle's failure to carry through on a promise to amend his proposal to give the review board more autonomy in issuing subpoenas. "He's a sorry and terrible commissioner," says Dennis, "a puppet of Penelas."

Late Friday, May 31, however, Rodriguez-Taseff said that she and Brad Brown, president of the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP, talked to Penelas and he agreed to get the language changed. On Monday, the day before the commission meeting, Rolle introduced Resolution 4B Substitute, which mirrored the review-board proposal passed in November by City of Miami voters.

But it proved to be too late. Although Penelas urged passage of the resolution, saying it would give hope to "people who are frustrated and disenfranchised," he also admitted up-front that "the votes are not here today to support this proposal."

That observation proved prophetic. With some 200 anti-review-board police officers who had packed the chambers looking on, only the four black commissioners -- Barbara Carey-Shuler, Dennis Moss, Betty Ferguson, and Rolle -- voted for the Rolle proposal. But none showed any real enthusiasm. Only Ferguson offered any verbal support at all.

Morales, feeling "very much betrayed by folks who had earlier given me strong indication that they were going to defer all this," walked out before the vote on the Rolle proposal in a form of protest. "I'm not going to dance to someone else's tune," he says.

Morales says he did return to the chamber to join the majority in rejecting the Martinez plan. In explaining her two No votes, Commissioner Katy Sorenson said she agreed with Morales that the issue lacked urgency. "This is a solution in search of a problem," said Sorenson. "The police are only getting better."

In the City of Miami a series of questionable police shootings, as well as a corruption scandal that has fourteen officers facing federal charges, galvanized voters to endorse overwhelmingly civilian review with subpoena power. And although Rameau argues that "there is plenty of outrage in the black community" about county cops, too, he concedes that he and other community activists did not do well in channeling that outrage into the commission chambers. The Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York-based civil rights activist, accompanied by police brutality victim and now Florida resident Abner Louima, attended last week's commission meeting, but very few African-Americans who live in Miami-Dade County were there.

Rodriguez-Taseff says that subpoena-powered civilian review of the county police "is dead until the next tragedy happens. The crisis mentality of all knee-jerk politicians [suggests] that they will not address it until something happens or there is a political windfall in the issue."

Given the history of relations between blacks and police in the county, something will happen sometime. "Unless we get rid of all criminals," Rivera allows, "at some point someone else will get hurt or get shot."

So the question then may be: Will it get caught on videotape?

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Mike Clary

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