Politics: Civilian Oversight – Now

City Mustn’t Let the Cops Police Themselves

The March 26 crowd-vs.-cops confrontation on the beach at 9th St. – which, thanks to postings of various videos of it on YouTube, is already known worldwide – was quite disturbing.

However disturbing were the infractions allegedly committed by the arrested individuals involved, equally disturbing, if not more so, was the conduct of police officers at the scene.

But even more troubling than all that was the pronouncement from police headquarters three days later – all too hasty, one might conclude – that top brass saw no problem whatsoever with the behavior of their officers in the incident.

To recap, here, according to press reports, is what happened that Saturday afternoon:

Woman gets ejected from beach concert for unruly behavior.  Cop confronts her, slams her to the ground, as a vocally angry crowd watches.  Man throws sand at cop and incites crowd, whereupon he is subdued with a headlock.  Minutes later, backup cops descend onto scene.

When people witness a woman being tossed like a rag doll, headfirst, into the sand, by a man – cop or not – that violates the basic tenet of chivalrous conduct which holds that a man doesn’t treat a woman that way.

When a cop violates that rule – and witnessed, as it was, by a crowd of a hundred or more bystanders – then that becomes even more troubling, for we expect police officers to hold themselves to a higher, more civil, standard of conduct, especially in public places where many people may be congregated.  And eyewitness such conduct.

When the man manhandling a woman is a cop, don’t expect a great deal of public empathy for your officers, Chief Noriega.  To many, that looks like raw misconduct, pure and simple.  To excuse it?  Well, that provokes them to suspect that the police perceive themselves as above the law, or answerable to a different code of conduct than general society answers to.

Add to the fire this fuel:  Many people are already convinced that the police tend to be over-reactive, abusive, and non-respectful of citizens, in general.  The March 26 incident not only, for them, reinforces their prejudices about cops but perpetuates those suspicions to the public at large, now that anyone with a cell phone can record scenes as that and post them online for all the world to see.

The YouTube vids (I counted as many as ten, so far) are branded with provocative titles such as “South Beach Police Brutality,” “Miami Beach Police Throw Down Girl,” and “Cops Choke Man.”  It seems the incident was recorded, in its full-length entirety, from just about every angle in the crowd.  One vid has already gotten over 90,000 views.  Unlike the incident itself, these vids will linger on – in cyber space – indefinitely.

The March 26 incident mirrors a similar one that happened on Halloween night last October, that one in Cocowalk, in the heart of Coconut Grove.  Same ingredients:  Festive people, an unruly few, a cadre of cops, and then – boom – tussles, arrests, taunts from the crowd, and, within hours, YouTube postings, media coverage, and an internal affairs probe.

I put this question to the Miami Beach police chief, the city manager, the mayor, and all six commissioners:

Would it not be preferable if a Civilian Investigative Panel – like that which Miami adopted in 2002 – was established for Miami Beach?

In addition, I asked Chief Noriega why should Beach citizens be confident that his department’s Internal Affairs is a sufficient mechanism for objectively investigating incidents and complaints involving possible police misconduct.

Mayor Bower was out of the office and in Tallahassee; Michael Gongora and Deede Weithorn were the only commissioners to respond.  The city manager has yet to.

Gongora pronounced it an “interesting idea” he had not heard raised before.  “I’m not sure if there was abuse or not in this instance,” he told me, “but I think input from residents and civilians could be welcome.”  He vowed to bring it up with the administration.

“I do not feel that it is appropriate for me to comment on this,” Weithorn explained,  “as I was scheduled and went on a [police] ride-along that day and was at the police station the night” of the incident.

Predictably, a CIP is not an idea Chief Noriega supports:  “I have complete confidence in my [I.A.] Unit’s ability to investigate any complaint or allegation against any police personnel fairly, thoroughly and objectively.

“I appreciate the suggestions, but I am more than comfortable with the checks and balances I have in place.”

Chief, while you may think that your officers that day did nothing inappropriate by procedural standards, when measured by the standard that the public holds in higher regard – that of simple, moral decency – your officers flunked, big time.

And while you may believe your department can investigate itself without bias, many would take exception to this.  Police – not just yours but cops anywhere – have historically never been good, impartial judges of their own conduct.

The image the public has of your department and its officers should be of great concern to you.  Rushing to judgment with an I.A. stamp of approval on the police conduct of March 26 – minus a more careful, deliberative assessment, one including the opinions of others, notably your civilian higher-ups – doesn’t benefit you, your officers, or the department, in the long run.

Now, to those civilian higher-ups I just mentioned.

Civilian authority governs this nation’s military and military policy.  The president is commander-in-chief.  This is the way it’s been for over two centuries, uninterrupted.

In much the same way, municipal leaders – mayors and managers – are responsible for exercising civilian control of their local police departments.

Take for example the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.

The Pentagon, of course, internally investigated itself, the soldiers involved, and the policies that led to this infamous miscarriage of military and human ethics.  But was that the last of it?  By no means.  The military’s civilian overlords – the Bush White House and Congress – investigated, too, and had the last word.  As well they should have.

Thus when a police department’s Internal Affairs unit rules on the substance and merit of complaints brought against the department, should it have any more of a last word than does our nation’s military?  Of course not.  Provided, that is, that the municipal civilian overlords of that police department haven’t abrogated or neglected what is their nontransferable responsibility to police the police.

But that is what it seems you folks on Convention Drive have done:  abrogated and neglected your responsibility to be in control of our police.

You weren’t elected or appointed to drop the reins from your hands and leave the horse, unbridled, unfettered, to drive itself.

It’s only a matter of time before an uglier, more incendiary, incident occurs here, the type which drags reluctant Miami Beach officials, kicking and screaming, to the inevitable acceptance that a CIP is necessary.  These recent disturbing incidents involving the MBPD strenuously demonstrate that civilian oversight is long overdue:

– The March 2009 case of Harold Strickland, a gay man wrongly arrested by Beach cops after he witnessed them beating a man in Flamingo Park and who, himself, was subject to anti-gay epithets.  The ACLU is now suing the city on his behalf.

– The June 2009 fatal police shooting of Husien Shehada outside Twist nightclub, on Washington Ave., caught on surveillance video.  The state attorney’s office last month ruled that deadly force was justified.

Miami voters signed off on the creation of that city’s CIP a decade ago, following a rash of shootings in the African-American community by police and the outrage felt among the Cuban-American community by the beatings and questionable arrests emanating from the Elian Gonzalez riots the year before.

Miami Beach should take a lesson from what Miami – and other Florida cities, like Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and St. Petersburg, to name but a few – as well as cities nationwide have done, and create a civilian review panel before, not after, a similar or worse chaotic incident explodes.

I will have more to add on this issue, including more of Chief Noriega’s explanation to me, next week.

NO EX-MAYORS NEED APPLY

In the fallout from last month’s Alvarez and Seijas recalls, when charter reform is inching us closer towards the imposition of term limits on county commishes too many of whom have overstayed their welcome on the dais, comes now the once(-and-future?) mayor Alex Penelas to hint that he might want his old job back.

“Maybe there’s a certain skill set or experience I could offer at this time,” he told the Herald this week.

Thanks but no thanks, Alex.  You had your time (eight years’ time), and we weren’t exactly enthralled by your skills and experience then.  Have scratched our heads but can’t think of what you possibly could’ve gained in the years since you’ve been gone to convince us why we would yearn for your return.

Indeed, when one considers your record as county mayor, President Eisenhower’s reply to a reporter asking about Vice President Nixon’s accomplishments comes to mind:

“If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

So go away, Alex.  It’s a new century, new decade, new era.  New faces with fresher approaches are needed at County Hall.  You don’t fill that bill.

But should we need someone to grace our TV screens and speak reassuringly to us from the emergency operations center as hurricane winds whip ferociously outside, leave us your number.

Otherwise, don’t call us.  We’ll call you.

GET ON YOUR FEET (AND VOTE FOR ME)

Those who tuned in to WLRN Radio’s The Florida Roundup last Friday heard the startling, this-just-in announcement from host Phil Latzman that the Queen of Latin Pop, Miami’s own Gloria Estefan, would be – is she really? – throwing her hat into the ring for county mayor, at an afternoon press conference arranged by husband Emilio.

For one sweet moment, we all imagined Gloria exploding through the pack of hum-drum, stuffed-suit also-rans to become the sudden, odds-on-favorite frontrunner, then being elected, convincingly, in a landslide, as the county’s first-ever female executive.

Mayor Gloria Estefan.  Staring down commissioners and agency chiefs alike and making them melt like mantequilla in her hands.

Mayor Gloria Estefan.  Appearing live on our TV screens from the emergency operations center during a hurricane, assuring us everything’s going to be just okay, we’ll get through it, and regaling us with one or two of her all-time hits.

That is, before Phil dropped the bomb on our daydream and let those two Words Get in the Way – “April Fools!”

Damn.  Well, it was a nice dream while it lasted.  And as for any serious future aspirations for local office, there’s Always Tomorrow.  Right, Gloria?

WHAT A WEEKEND

Last weekend was a fine one to celebrate the great outdoors.  Saturday’s annual Miami Riverfest Day offered an awesome chance to take in a free boat cruise down the Miami River and glimpse the result of the dredging and cleanup of the waterway in recent years, as well the commercial activity and residential communities along its banks.  I also got to check out, for the first time, some of the historic artifacts and buildings from early Miami in the city’s oldest park, Lummus, which hosts Riverfest every year.

Sunday’s Community Bay Day with the Shake-A-Leg Miami people at their HQ in the Grove was an enjoyable afternoon with food, music, kayaking, and sailing demonstrations.  I’ve been a long-time acquaintance, but first-time visitor, of this noble organization.  I promise to visit more often.

The author is an independent columnist. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and not those of the publication or it’s Editors and owners.

About Charles Branham-Bailey

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