07/09/2013 03:26 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

DOJ: Miami Police Department Used Excessive Force In Shootings, Delayed Investigations


WASHINGTON -- A federal investigation into a notorious string of shootings by Miami police has determined that the department "engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive use of force through officer-involved shootings in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution."

The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice began the probe in 2011 after Miami police officers had shot and killed 17 people during the 2010-2011 period -- including seven young black men, two of whom were unarmed, over the course of eight months. Outrage had risen as police investigations dragged on and families of the deceased were kept in the dark.

The DOJ investigation grew to include 33 shootings between 2008 and 2011. "While the number of shootings alone does not itself establish a pattern or practice of unreasonable force, it stands in stark contrast to a 20-month period in 2002-2004 in which there were no MPD officer-involved shootings at persons," said a DOJ letter to Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado and current Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa. Orosa was commended for having reduced the incidence of shootings since assuming leadership of the Miami Police Department in late 2011.

But the report blasted police officials for having fully investigated just 24 of the 33 shooting incidents, with multiple investigations remaining incomplete for three years or longer.

Of the 17 shootings between 2010 and 2011, seven investigations remain unfinished -- and some case files that were requested multiple times by federal investigators were never provided. The shootings in three of the 10 finished cases were determined by Miami police to be unjustified, but the DOJ identified "numerous" other shootings that were "questionable at best."

Additionally, according to the report, the police department could have prevented some of the later deaths if it had properly and promptly investigated officers involved in the earlier shootings because a handful of officers were involved in a "disproportionate" number of shootings. One cop discharged his weapon in four shootings and killed three people over three years. Two of those shootings are still under investigation.

"A combination of seven officers participated in over a third of the 33 officer-involved shootings," the DOJ letter said. "Had the shooting investigations been completed in a timely fashion, corrective action could have been undertaken and may have prevented the harm that can result from officers' repeated shootings, such as injury or death to the officer and/or the subject, trauma to the officer and others, and costly legal settlements, among other types of harm."

The DOJ also noted that four of the 17 shootings from 2010 and 2011 involved officers who have since been arrested, indicted or convicted of crimes unrelated to the shootings.

One major issue was the use of unmarked vehicles by specialized units, which the DOJ found did not always adhere to operational plans and did not always have the most highly trained officers.

"When unmarked vehicles are not immediately identifiable as police vehicles, and officers are not immediately identifiable as officers, confusion can lead to dangerous actions by officers, subjects and bystanders,” the report stated.

Noting that the probe was the second time in about a decade that the DOJ had investigated the Miami Police Department for excessive force, the letter concluded that "continued, court-enforceable oversight" of the department is necessary.

"It disturbs me to say now, a decade later, that the problems we saw before have returned, if they in fact were ever resolved in the first place," Roy Austin, the deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, told reporters on Tuesday.

"Certainly, if the investigations were done properly and they were able to determine what led to the incident and fixed whatever the training issues were, the policy issues were right away, we wouldn’t be putting officers back on the street who had just had a prior fatal shooting incident," Austin said.

Orosa, the Miami police chief, issued a statement saying the MPD "looks forward to the opportunity to clarify several components of the letter, as well as to labor intensely to negotiate an agreement with the Department of Justice, as promptly as possible." Austin said the feds were "optimistic" about reaching an agreement with the MPD.