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Your View: Help us bring back Miami’s police oversight panel

Rachel Streitfeld serves on the board of the Greater Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and is a recent graduate of the University of Miami School of Law.
Rachel Streitfeld Headshot

Arthur McDuffie was a black insurance agent who ran a red light on his motorcycle in 1980. At the corner of North Miami Avenue and NE 38th Street, he was stopped by white officers, handcuffed, and beaten to death.

When an all-white jury acquitted the officers, Miami erupted. Cars were torched with drivers inside and buildings were burnt to the ground. Brownsville residents fueled by outrage and despair left their neighborhood smoldering. The violence and destruction killed 18 people and cost more than $100 million in property damage.

Desperate to ameliorate tensions between police officers and the black community, the county created the Independent Review Panel (IRP). The panel provided a completely public process whereby residents could file reports and claims about police violence. The IRP was a body of citizens, not politicians, that provided a forum where residents could be heard on the subject of police brutality. The IRP also aided prosecutorial agencies and investigated complaints against county employees. For nearly thirty years, the IRP provided a source of procedural justice.

In 2009, budget woes from the national foreclosure crisis forced the county to cut its funding and the IRP shut its doors. But we need to bring it back. The death, destruction, and disturbance that led to the IRP’s founding is instructive now, in 2016. Persistent questions about police use of deadly force, viral videos that shock the conscience, and elusive access to justice plague our beautiful county and tensions continue to rise despite some efforts at dialogue and reform. Our county is engaged in a passionate conversation about systemic injustices, and the IRP could play a critical role.

Today, with police brutality once again roiling Miami and cities across the country, Miami-Dade County should restore funding for the Independent Review Panel in its FY 2016-17 budget, but as of right now, the proposed budget lacks any funding for it.

Fortunately, the ordinance establishing the IRP is still on the books, so all Miami-Dade County has to do is restore its funding. There are pretty clear ideas about what a revived IRP would look like. Community managers and an executive director along with support staff would conduct assessments and evaluate policies and practices in response to complaints. The IRP would implement training, mediation protocols, outreach, and other responses to resident complaints.

An effective and properly funded IRP would provide opportunities for productive communication and dispute resolution, fostering understanding, cooperation, and respect. The IRP educates community leaders and provides an independent avenue for holding public employees accountable.

On the flip side, county employees are ensured a fair process so that allegations against them are investigated fairly and comprehensively. Although the use of police body cameras can help establish what happened, videos rarely resolve all factual issues and, most importantly, cannot substitute for the exercise of judgment as to whether police acted fairly and in accordance with departmental policies and procedures.

Civilian oversight boards like the IRP are hallmarks of democratic societies, and the county would be wise to demonstrate that it takes this type of civic participation seriously. This is because civilian oversight is recognized as an important tool to help restore trust between the community and the police.  Civilian oversight enhances accountability and transparency in policing which, in turn, enhances public trust in the police.

The ACLU of Greater Miami, the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP, PULSE, NANA, the Trayvon Martin Foundation, the Community Relations Board, and many other great local organizations are urging the county to re-invigorate the IRP because we have serious problems with racially-biased policing and abuses of power.

Residents can weigh in on Thursday, Aug. 11 via social media (details below) to press for the inclusion of $600,000 to fully fund the IRP in FY 2016-17. Facebook/Twitter forums on the county budget info is here.

Your View is a recurring series of opinion pieces from members of The New Tropic community. To share your ideas, goals, and work about Miami with the community in a Your View piece, please email us at [email protected]