New eyes on police

Miami Gardens fired police officers Javier Castano and Jordy Yanes Martel in June, after they were caught on camera making a “rough arrest” at a RaceTrac gas station. Martel was later charged criminally in another case, accused of beating and using a taser on a woman outside Tootsie’s Cabaret, including putting a knee on her neck, in January.

“Egregious,” Police Chief Delma Noel-Pratt called their behavior.

Still, both officers remain on the payroll – and may be for considerable time to come. They aren’t working, but a union-mandated process allows them a lengthy, complex appeal before their terminations are final, unless arbitrators decide they shouldn’t have been fired.

“As is the case with the vast majority of municipalities,” a Miami Gardens spokesperson said, “an officer’s disciplinary action is dictated according to the collective bargaining agreement and state law. This process is ongoing.”

Getting rid of problematic cops is just one of the issues that has exploded into public debate since the knee-on-neck death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. Defunding the police, demands for new national laws – the topics range widely, often with little focus.

On June 1, the same day that President Donald Trump’s troops parted a sea of peaceful protesters so he could be photographed holding up a Bible in front of a Washington, D.C., church, former President Barack Obama suggested a focus in a short essay, “How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change.”

The core of his advice: “The elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments … work at the state and local levels.”

With that in mind, The Miami Times and its sister publication, The Biscayne Times, asked 16 police departments in Miami-Dade what their positions were on three issues that have sparked heated discussion in recent weeks:

• What’s your policy regarding chokeholds?

• Can the public see complaints against police officers?

• Can the department fire an officer and make the firing stick?

All 16 departments responded, often with similar answers, though with some exceptions.

Chokeholds

All types of neck restraints have been under intense scrutiny going back to 2014, when a Staten Island police officer’s chokehold killed Eric Garner, who had been stopped for selling loose cigarettes. Still, many departments continued to embrace the techniques. According to one news report, neck restraints were used 237 times in the past five years in Minneapolis, before Floyd’s death sparked demands for change.

In Miami-Dade, none of the 16 departments surveyed now authorize chokeholds as a method to control people. This is the way Florida City puts it: “The use of the Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint (LVNR), also known as ‘chokehold,’ is PROHIBITED.”

The Miami-Dade County Police Department, which serves unincorporated areas (like Brownsville) and some municipalities (like Palmetto Bay), changed its policies after the death of Floyd, as did several other departments. Other municipalities have forbidden the maneuvers for years. Sunny Isles Beach has had a written prohibition since at least 2006.

Police experts have long known that attacking a subject’s neck can be deadly. Ken Harms, a former Miami police chief who has been a police policy consultant for decades, said that in theory maneuvers the public know as chokeholds – including the LVNR and the Applied Carotid Triangular Restraint (ACTR) – can quickly subdue an unruly person.

“Theoretically, they just pass out,” he said.

But the “neck is a fragile area,” and there are many scenarios, including the health of the subject, when the technique can be lethal.

“The risk is always there,” said Harms.

In fact, that’s why some departments – including El Portal and North Miami – approve neck restraints only when lethal force is acceptable, to protect the life of an officer or citizen. For these departments, attacking the neck is like firing a gun at a suspect.

Harms said that state and federal law provides that an officer can use essentially any lethal force to save his/her life or that of others. Viewed in that context, officers could use chokeholds in lethal situations even if a local department had a total ban on their use.

Records access and officer firings

All departments said virtually the same thing: After an investigation is closed anyone can see the complaint, as provided under Florida Statute 119, which governs public records. The catch? If they want to hide something, said Harms, a department might keep it under investigation for two or three years, saying it’s still an open case. In that situation, a citizen would be forced to go to court to persuade a judge that the complaint should be revealed.

Regarding the third, and most explosive question we posed – can a police chief fire an officer and make it stick – the simple answer is yes, albeit with a big asterisk.

All 16 departments surveyed have appeals processes, often dictated by union contracts that are approved by elected officials. Several cities cited the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR), which runs 1,700 words in Florida statutes.

One of those protections requires officers to be paid during appeals. In North Miami, the city spent a long time trying to fire Police Commander Emile Hollant for his role in a shooting. Hollant collected at least $175,000 for doing nothing before he was finally dismissed.

A Washington Post survey found that over a 10-year period, the nation’s largest police departments tried to fire 1,881 officers for misconduct. More than 450, about 1 in 4, got their jobs back, thanks to a union-required appeals process.

A survey in Minnesota found that about half of officers fired in the state got their jobs back after arbitration hearings. One cop was reinstated after beating a handcuffed, intoxicated man, producing a “pool of blood.” Arbitrators decided a two-week suspension was enough punishment.

Harms said the flawed arbitration process meant he had to keep some officers on desk jobs, without gun or badge, because he viewed them as dangerous cops, and that if he put them back on the street he and the city could be found legally responsible for their misdeeds.

Often, cops have a soft spot for their fellow brothers in blue. Harms said he saw that when he was on the board of the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, which listens to pleas from fired police officers who want to get their licenses back so they can go to work for other police departments. He said the board included “good-old-boy sheriffs who didn’t want to fire anyone,” leading to problematic officers continuing their careers.

The coronavirus effect

Even COVID-19 is helping out cops who are being investigated. The Sun-Sentinel reported that a provision in the LEOBR, passed with a strenuous push by police unions, provides that investigations of officers can be suspended when there’s a state emergency. The newspaper says dozens of investigations, many of them concerning officers’ actions against Black Lives Matter demonstrators, were put on hold because of the governor-declared pandemic emergency.

One group that could have suggested a solution is the Florida Police Chiefs Association. After the protests started, it formed a committee to explore reforms. Half the committee members are in law enforcement; the other half are community leaders, including T. Willard Fair of the Urban League of Greater Miami. The association recently came out with new “use-of-force” recommendations but ignored the issue of finding easier ways to fire bad cops.

Cities in conflict – and resolution

A city struggling to get its department back on the right track is Opa-locka, after Miami-Dade County issued a scathing report that the city’s officers didn’t meet basic standards in training and supervision. Last month, the city fired former Police Chief James Dobson for not solving the problems, including the city’s high-crime rate.

“Opa-locka continues to evaluate our policies on law enforcement best practices,” said City Manager John E. Pate.

The city is currently conducting a national search led by Cedric Alexander, who has 40 years in law enforcement, is the former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and served on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Biscayne Park is one town that has gotten rid of problematic cops. The one-time chief and three officers were convicted of charges related to framing several innocent Black men in an attempt to appease residents angry about unsolved burglaries.

Luis Cabrera, brought in as chief to clean up the department, said he’s working hard to change the department’s atmosphere. Cabrera has training officers in community relations and has put an officer on duty in the village park to interact with people.

“We’ve filed for accreditation” from the state, he said. “We need an independent body to come in here to verify we’re doing the job right.”

To ordinary citizens, cops doing the job right seems a matter of simple common sense: Be honest. Don’t beat a handcuffed prisoner. Don’t shoot a fleeing suspect in the back.

David Magnusson, police chief in El Portal, likens an officer confronting an uncooperating subject to getting into a ring.

“I boxed for a long time,” he said. It was easy to follow recommended procedures while sparring, but “once you’re in a real fight and things aren’t going according to [the rules],” it’s easy to forget what you learned. His solution: “Constant training goes a long way” to imprint in officer’s brain what to do under severe pressure.

After Floyd’s death, Magnusson joined 20-some chiefs at Coral Gables City Hall to take a knee to show support for the concerns of protesters.

Stated Magnusson: “A lot of things weren’t right about Floyd’s death.”

But how much can training really help? After the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the entire Minneapolis police department received training to become more sensitive to minorities and improve community relations – and still Floyd died under an officer’s knee. In Atlanta, the officer who shot and killed a fleeing man at a Wendy’s in June had just received training in how to de-escalate tense situations.

Still, police leaders see training as their main tool.

“Training is extremely important,” Harms said, and if someone doesn’t abide by regulations, “that officer must be held accountable.”

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