The Justice Department has opened a civil investigation into accusations of excessive use of deadly force by members of the Miami Police Department (MPD) in the wake of the killing by police of eight black men over the past 16 months.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the department's Civil Rights Division, said Thursday in Miami the non-criminal inquiry will determine whether Miami police violated the civil rights of the men as part of a "pattern or practice" within the Miami Police Department that led to constitutional violations.
"Since July 2010, MPD officers shot and killed eight young men and critically wounded a ninth man. By comparison, the country's largest police force, the New York City Police Department, had one fatal shooting for every 4,313 officers in 2010, while Miami had one fatal shooting for every 220 officers," Mr. Perez said, adding that Washington, D.C., with a larger population and police force, had no fatal shootings by police in 2010.
Mr. Perez said in two of the Miami shootings, the men shot were unarmed and that six of the eight fatal shootings were by MPD officers in such specialized squads as the gang unit, SWAT, tactical robbery unit and the canine unit.
"The mayor and the acting chief have pledged their full support and cooperation in our investigation," he said, adding that the department will inform the city of its conclusion and attempt to work with its leaders to remedy any violations.
The Justice Department has said the investigation will seek to determine whether Miami police officers engaged in systemic violations of the Constitution or federal law based on "all relevant information, particularly the efforts that MPD has undertaken to ensure compliance with federal law and the experiences and views of the community."
The department has taken similar steps involving a variety of state and local law enforcement agencies, both large and small, in jurisdictions such as Newark, N.J.; Seattle; Puerto Rico; New Orleans; and Washington, D.C.
The Miami shootings resulted in outrage from the city's black community, which led to protests at City Hall and demands for the federal probe by the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others.
Former Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito defended the shootings as justified, saying they were the result of confrontations because of more aggressive police tactics in areas plagued by high crime. He said in an 11-page memo that violent crimes in the city had "dropped to levels not seen in Miami in over 40 years" as a result of his deployment of tactical officers on the streets.
In his memo, the chief also noted that "citizen complaints against our officers declined by 22.4 percent in 2010, when compared to the previous year."
"I trust that this is not an attempt by the U.S. attorney's office to politicize what should otherwise be an apolitical process," said Mr. Exposito, who was fired in September.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado asked for the investigation in a letter in August to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Miami's acting police chief, Manuel Orosa, has said he welcomes the probe and has ordered a top-to-bottom review of all department practices.
"The more people looking at what we do, the more it makes us more capable of serving the community," the chief's spokesman, Maj. Delrish Moss, said in a statement.
In 2003, the Justice Department performed a broad investigation of tactics used by Miami police officers following several shootings, but reached no conclusion.
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