If the effort to bring back a panel to investigate complaints of misconduct against Miami-Dade police officers were a game of Chutes and Ladders, community leaders and police-reform advocates would be precariously perched at the top of a ladder waiting for a move that would either allow them to advance on the board or send them down a winding slide back to Square #1.
Last week, Miami-Dade commissioners voted 8-5 to revive and fund the Independent Review Panel, a defunct county board composed of civilian members who reviewed complaints lodged against police. This time around, the board would be renamed as the Independent Civilian Panel.
Commissioners Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman, Eileen Higgins, Barbara Jordan, Daniella Levine Cava, Jean Monestime, Dennis Moss, and Xavier Suarez voted yes. Commissioners Esteban Bovo, Jose "Pepe" Diaz, Joe Martinez, Rebeca Sosa, and Javier Souto voted no.
And County Mayor Carlos Gimenez hinted that he would veto the measure for the second time in as many years.
"I'm hoping against all hope that he will see it's in the best interest of the community to not veto," says Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who proposed the ordinance to reinstate the panel.
The county's charter gives the mayor ten days to veto any legislative decision following a commission vote. That means Gimenez has until this Friday, July 17. New Times asked the mayor's office if he plans to veto the panel and is awaiting a response.
Whatever the mayor decides, Jordan and members of more than 30 social-justice groups say the fight for the Independent Civilian Panel isn't over.
During last week's county commission meeting, Gimenez said he didn't want the panel to have subpoena power, arguing that subpoenas could be used for political reasons and opposing the possibility that commissioners or county employees could be called to testify in an investigation. He also wanted commissioners to make direct appointments for people to serve on the panel rather than receive recommendations from a nominating committee, as originally proposed.
The mayor indicated he would have approved of the panel if those conditions were met. Jordan made a concession to allow commissioners to make their own appointments but held firm on maintaining subpoena power.
If the mayor blocks the current proposal, Jordan says, she plans to introduce a new ordinance during the July 21 county commission meeting that would exempt county employees from being subpoenaed. State law already bars civilian oversight boards from calling police officers to testify while they're under investigation.
"That doesn't mean all subpoena power would be removed," Jordan tells New Times. "We would still have subpoena power for witnesses who may be private citizens. We can still subpoena documents and any evidentiary information we need. So hopefully he doesn't veto the item and we can leave it intact, but if he does, this new item is ready."
Because Gimenez said on the record that those were his conditions, Jordan hopes the mayor will be "a man of his word" and approve the new proposal if it comes to that.
Jordan says she doesn't think the provision to limit some of the panel's subpoena power will weaken its abilities. She says she asked the City of Miami's Civilian Investigative Panel how many times it has subpoenaed a city employee; the answer was once in the past nine years.
"That convinced me that to continue to fight that battle and lose the entire ordinance. It was more advantageous to win the ordinance approval as opposed to fighting a battle we may not win at all," Jordan says.
The county created the Independent Review Panel in 1980 following riots over the acquittal of four Miami-Dade police officers in the fatal beating of Arthur McDuffie. The panel was defunded in 2009 because of the economic recession, and Jordan proposed a measure to reinstate the panel in 2018. This is where it starts to feel like déjà vu.
Commissioners approved the panel in a 7-5 vote in 2018. Each of the commissioners who voted against the measure in 2018 — Bovo, Sosa, Diaz, Martinez, and Souto — voted against it during last week's meeting. One commissioner was absent from the 2018 meeting.
Gimenez vetoed the measure in 2018, saying he wasn't "entirely convinced" of the need and asserting that his own standards for how police officers should act are enough. The commission didn't have the required minimum of nine votes to override the veto.
This time around, regardless of what happens with the ordinances, Miami-Dade voters may get to decide for themselves. Commissioners Jordan and Daniella Levine Cava proposed a resolution that would make the panel part of the county's charter. The resolution was adopted 10-3 during last week's meeting. Commissioners Bovo, Diaz, and Sosa voted against it.
The mayor could veto that resolution, but Jordan says she doesn't think he would deny voters their voice.
Assuming Gimenez does not veto the resolution, voters can expect to see this question on the November ballot:
Shall the county charter be amended to establish an Independent Civilian Panel as a charter entity with the authority to review county law enforcement policies, patterns, practices and closed internal affairs investigations, alternative dispute resolution proceedings, and public hearings on complaints against county law enforcement, and issue written fact-findings, recommendations, reports, and evaluations as set forth by ordinance?
Jordan says even if Gimenez does not veto the panel and allows it to be resurrected, the purpose of placing the item on the ballot is to give it permanence and make sure it can't lose funding again in a budget crisis.
"We have been trying to get [the panel] back all these years and haven't been able to," Jordan says. "We had police who didn't want it, a number of people who haven't wanted it. One way to make sure it happens is to let voters decide. That way, it's not left up to anyone else to criticize. The voters say, 'Find the money, because we want it as part of our charter.'"
The coalition of organizations supporting civilian oversight — including Dream Defenders, New Florida Majority, Florida Immigrant Coalition, Community Justice Project, the Greater Miami chapter of ACLU of Florida, and the Miami-Dade NAACP — will also work to encourage residents to vote yes for the panel in November.
Police-reform advocates stress that civilian oversight boards are necessary because they provide an impartial avenue for citizens to report officer misconduct. Police departments and unions argue that's what internal affairs investigations are for.
But Jeanne Baker, chair of the Police Practices Committee of the Greater Miami chapter of ACLU Florida, says internal affairs investigations overwhelmingly find that police officers didn't do anything wrong.
"It's the fox guarding the fox den," Baker says.
Baker says civilian oversight panels aren't a "magic wand" but one of many avenues that should be used to build trust and address problems between police and communities.
"We don't claim that as soon as you pass civilian oversight, you're going to eliminate racism or bad-apple cops, but it's an important tool to give communities a place to express complaints, receive procedural justice, and to be heard in a genuinely impartial way," she says.
Ruban Roberts, president of the Miami-Dade NAACP, emphasizes that civilian oversight isn't an anti-police measure.
"This is a police accountability measure that police officers should welcome," Roberts says. "This should shine light on those rogue officers and bad officers that put a stain on the badge. It would also uphold the officers who go out there and do their job on a daily basis."
Roberts says one of the roles of civilian oversight of police is to ensure that people of all races, ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, and sexual orientations are treated with respect and dignity.
"To protect and serve, that's a heck of a responsibility," Roberts says. "And far too often, that responsibility isn't taken seriously; it's abused and misused. Not by all, but by some."
Civilian panels also present an opportunity to begin addressing systemic racism in communities.
"The reality is that for many people in our community and in our country, unfortunately, there has been a lack of trust of law enforcement because of the color of their skin and the experiences either they or family members or friends have experienced over multiple generations," Levine Cava says. "So racism is not a problem of any one profession — it's a problem in our society. The difference here is that police have an extraordinary amount of power over the well-being of our community residents, and it's necessary that they have trust to do their jobs."
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.