The recent fatal shootings of seven African-American suspects by Miami police officers is stirring outrage in many inner-city neighborhoods, prompting the city commission to hold a hearing Thursday to allow family members and activists to air their grievances.
"All I want to know is what happened to my child. Why is my son dead?" said Sheila McNeil, mother of 28-year-old Travis McNeil, who was shot to death during a traffic stop Feb. 10. He was not armed. "A routine traffic stop, whatever took place that night, should not have resulted in a death."
Before the hearing, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat who represents the area, called on the Justice Department to open a civil rights investigation and the agency said it was reviewing her request. She also wants Police Chief Miguel Exposito to resign.
"People are afraid for their children. Black men are afraid for their lives as well," Wilson said. "Are the police more prone to use violence in our community? It's just shoot them, shoot them dead."
Exposito defended his officers, contending the suspects are usually responsible when a situation turns violent.
"If the person they stop fails to obey orders, particularly when you are told to keep your hands on the car or don't reach into the car, it's going to be a problem," the chief said. "It doesn't matter what community it is, white, black, Hispanic or Oriental."
That's not good enough for about 50 people, including teenagers, who crowded into the meeting chamber and staged a brief protest outside City Hall. Some carried signs reading "No Justice, No Peace," and chanting "Exposito Must Go." Others wore T-shirts with slogans such as "Your Job is to Serve and Protect but You Rather Neglect."
"We are going to fight to prevent any more killings in our community, and we want these officers brought to justice," said the Rev. Anthony Tate, president of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, or PULSE. "We are going to pursue this to the end."
The shootings of six men and one 16-year-old boy took place between July and February. They occurred after with Exposito doubled the number of officers, now over 100, in specialized tactical units targeting violent crime in poorer neighborhoods long plagued by drugs and gangs. He said the units have made hundreds of arrests and taken some 1,000 firearms off the streets.
"The officers did exactly what I wanted them to do," he said.
Each of the shootings is being reviewed by state prosecutors, and none of those investigations are completed. Activists have been particularly vocal about cases in which two of the suspects were unarmed, but Exposito said that does not necessarily mean the shooting was unjustified.
Critics like Wilson see those shootings as emblematic of an overly aggressive, quick-trigger mentality taking root within the police department.
"That mentality is not going to be effective, if you think you can just go into a community and shoot and kill people without any benefit of the doubt," she said.
The dangers faced by police in tough neighborhoods were underscored earlier this year in Florida, where four police officers were gunned down in two separate incidents in Miami and St. Petersburg, though those shootings didn't involve Exposito's department.
Exposito, a 37-year veteran who took over as chief in November 2009, has also clashed with the chief Miami-Dade County prosecutor over a shaky city corruption investigation, and with Mayor Tomas Regalado over a probe into video gaming machines. And coinciding with the shootings, a video has emerged that added more fuel for critics.
Shot as a pilot for a proposed "Miami's Finest SOS" program, the video showed Miami officers arresting black suspects and talking about how they are "hunters" and "predators" in the fight against crime. In the interview, Exposito said he didn't see anything wrong with those words.
"You are not going out to kill people, you are going out to hunt for them and capture them," he said.
The city has hired a former top FBI agent, Paul Philip, to review Exposito's performance and department policies. Exposito pointed out that Philip's initial findings on the shootings found that in the year before he became chief, Miami officers fired at seven suspects and killed four.
Exposito traces his problems to his disagreements with the mayor over an ordinance essentially legalized video gaming machines in the city.
"I turn into this incompetent boob because of the gambling machines operations. Before that, I walked on water," he said.