It has been eight years since Travis McNeil was killed at the hands of a Miami Police officer. His mother, Sheila McNeil, misses him every day. Her son died in February 2011 when Reynaldo Goyos shot him as he reached for something in his car during a traffic stop. No weapon was found on Travis McNeil.
That day, Feb. 11, 2011, Travis McNeil became the seventh Black person shot and killed by Miami Police officers in the span seven months – from July 2010 to February 2011. The shootings created tensions and policing concerns in Overtown, Little Haiti and Liberty City neighborhoods and caused a political backlash at Miami City Hall.
The feds stepped in.
In March 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice settled with the City of Miami and the Miami Police. The city and its police department admitted no wrongdoing and the justice department withheld "any claim of use of deadly force." Part of the agreement resulted in monitoring and oversight of the force. The feds appointed local overseers to improve the department's culture and practices. It was to continue until March 2020.
Travis McNeil's dead was a catalyst to changing the way Miami cops police Black people. But local advocates say more work needs to be done, and pointed to two racially motivated incidents during the monitoring period as evidence as well as a weak performance by the independent reviewer.
But less than 10 months before the deadline, the independent reviewer in charge of overseeing the agreement cannot continue her job. What's more, she has recommended an end to the oversight of the Miami Police much to chagrin of the Miami Police chief and community members.
Meanwhile families still have to cope with the deaths of sons, brothers, fathers and uncles. Sheila McNeil wants to see the settlement agreement prompted by the death of her son and other Black males carried out until its completion.
“I just wish the city would own up to the agreement that we have,” she said.
Sheila McNeil recalls the day that would end the life of her son, Travis.
It was Feb. 11 2011, when Travis McNeil and his cousin, Kareem Williams, were pulled over by a joint task force of City of Miami and federal law enforcement agents, after leaving a club in Little Haiti. Police approached his car and fired shots, killing Travis McNeil and wounding Williams.
"He just lost his life because one officer felt threatened," Sheila McNeil said.
REVIEWER STEPS DOWN
Former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor was selected as an independent reviewer to assess the city’s compliance with the agreement. A Community Advisory Board, also known as CAB, made up of city residents, also was created to liaise between the Miami Police and the independent reviewer.
Castor was recently elected Tampa's mayor. She plans to step down from monitoring for the feds. She has also recommended early termination of the entire agreement. Castor believes Miami Police department has met the requirements of the agreement, 10 months shy of the March 2020 end date. Her recommendation is raising concerns from members of the advisory board.
“Mayor Castor has enjoyed a positive working relationship with the Miami Police Department, DOJ and the CAB over the past few years. It is her opinion that MPD has met the requirements of the Agreement, as has been outlined in each report,” a spokesperson from her office said in a statement. “She communicated to all parties that she would be unable to continue in the position of Independent Monitor if elected Mayor of Tampa and recommended a replacement, if that was the option chosen by MPD and DOJ,” the statement reads.
At a community advisory board meeting late last month, Mayor Francis Suarez said he plans to meet with City Manager Emilio Gonzalez and Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina to discuss the future of the agreement following Castor’s exit.
Chief Colina believes the overseeing should continue by the Department of Justice's in-house team of attorneys, he said.
“They already know our situation,” Colina told The Miami Times. “They should be the ones that come down and continue the monitoring process. It appears that they agree.”
He is concerned that the vetting process for another independent reviewer will take time to formalize, especially with the March 2020 deadline looming.
Members of the advisory board say the department has made progress in improving community policing. However, they have been critical of Castor’s performance as an independent reviewer, citing late compliance with the quarterly reviews she’s required to submit, lack of transparency and failing to provide substantive information that reflects changes she has recommended to the police department.
“We have had several concerns with her reports,” said Justin Pinn, chair of the community advisory board. “It is very difficult from a community perspective to verify anything that she has said.”
The reports Castor turned in were narrative-based and lacked appropriate data and analysis, according to Pinn. The board also requested a comparison study of other police departments’ training techniques and best practice, which was never received, he said. The board also took issue with Castor’s recommendation that the agreement ends almost a year before the stipulated deadline, to which they learned days after she became mayor of Tampa.
“This puts the board and the community in Miami in a tough position,” Pinn said and pointed to examples that merit continuance of the agreement.
In December 2016, just months after the agreement was established, an internal Miami Police investigation found that three rookie officers joked in a group chat about using Black neighborhoods such as Liberty City and Overtown as “target practice.” The officers were fired shortly after. More recently, in May of 2018, a viral video shows a Miami Police officer kicking a handcuffed man, David Suazo, while he on the ground and being apprehended by a team of officers. The video caused concerns about excessive use of force. The accused officer was relieved of duty, per reports.
“These incidents do call into question the culture of policing and challenges the CAB, MPD, and the community-at-large on how we all can ensure fair, just, and equitable policing throughout the City of Miami,” Pinn wrote in his 2018 CAB annual report.
The Miami Police department has addressed implicit bias training by partnering with Florida International University to administer training for the officers, Colina said.
“This is not an issue in police. It is an issue in people,” he said. The board wants to see the department make progressive attempts and use nationwide best practices for implicit bias training. Colina agreed.
“I think the training is critical and it is something that we need to keep doing,” he said.
For Pinn and the board, the agreement is needed to continue to improve community relations throughout the City of Miami.
“This is about making sure we have a strong community,” Pinn said. “I don’t want to see a day where we have to return to this agreement.”
Sheila McNeil said she has seen little improvement when it comes to community policing.
"You have officers with attitude and whatever type of prejudice they have, they act them out on the streets everyday," she said. "The relations with police and the community, I don't see it's getting any better."
The death of her son forever changed her family's life.
“I really miss my son,” she said. "I'm sure the parents that lost their sons during this time feel the same way."
She's been in a deep depression. “I try to put myself into my work so I do not have to think about my son so much,” she said.
The officer who shot and killed her son, Goyos, was fired after Travis McNeil's death, but was given his job back with full back pay after arbitration, per reports.
This year, Travis’ son, 19, who’s been diagnosed with autism, graduated high school. The pair enjoyed a close relationship, she said. Her son’s death was particularly poignant as her grandson celebrated milestones like prom and his graduation.
“It’s been rough,” she said. “The one thing that was missing is that his father was not around,” she said.