The U.S. Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation Thursday into whether Miami police officers engaged in a pattern of excessive use of deadly force in the fatal shootings of seven African-American suspects over an eight-month span.
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, and Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said the probe will focus not on the individual officers but on whether the Miami Police Department's policies and practices on use of force led to violations of constitutional rights. The investigation is not criminal in nature.
"We're looking at systems. We're not looking at individual culpability," Perez told reporters. "We will follow the facts where the facts lead us. We will peel the onion to its core."
The shootings in inner-city Miami, from July 2010 to February 2011 and including two others that were not fatal, sparked outrage in the African-American community and led to protests at City Hall. The NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union, among others, demanded a federal investigation.
The former police chief, Miguel Exposito, defended the shootings as justified and said they resulted from confrontations caused by more aggressive police tactics in high-crime areas plagued by gangs. Exposito was fired in September for disobeying orders from the city manager, but the uproar over the shootings was a factor in his ouster.
In a written statement Thursday, Exposito said during his tenure people in many inner-city neighborhoods were demanding action against crime and gangs, leading him to double to 130 the number of tactical officers focused on those areas. Exposito said crime went down as a result.
"I trust that this is not an attempt by the U.S. attorney's office to politicize what should otherwise be an apolitical process," Exposito said.
Ferrer said the probe followed a lengthy preliminary review that included meetings with police officers and citizens and requests for federal involvement from politicians, including Mayor Tomas Regalado. Perez said a key factor was that the rate of fatal Miami police shootings was much higher over the same time frame compared with larger cities such as New York and Washington.
"We did this based on the facts we received," Ferrer said. "We are not here to lay blame or cast suspicion."
The current interim chief, Manuel Orosa, said he welcomed the investigation and has already begun dismantling the tactical squads that Exposito created. Orosa said the squads, often using undercover methods and unmarked vehicles, tended to provoke more violent confrontations than those involving uniformed officers in marked cruisers.
"It's my opinion that under this tactical section, we're putting a policeman in a situation where they have to shoot or not shoot. That's a very difficult situation," Orosa said.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katharine Fernandez Rundle, whose office reviews all police shootings, said two of the seven have been cleared as justified. But the Justice Department will also examine those cases for possible federal civil rights violations.
"We found they did not violate any state criminal laws," Rundle said of the two completed reviews.
Earlier this decade, the Justice Department launched a broad investigation into Miami Police Department tactics after several high-profile police shootings. But that probe in 2003 reached no conclusion about whether department policies caused civil rights violations.
Perez said the Miami case marks the 18th such civil rights investigation involving police practices the Justice Department has opened in recent years, including Seattle, New Orleans and Newark, N.J. Outcomes can range from court decrees requiring departments to fix problems to the providing of assistance aimed at reducing potential civil rights violations.
"I don't know which path it will lead us to," Perez said.
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