First case scheduled for new Miami-Dade police oversight panel

But the uncertain future of its countywide authority only makes the coming weeks and months more important, its chair says.

Image by Diego Fabian Parra Pabon from Pixabay

Three years after the Miami-Dade County commission voted to create a new civilian panel to oversee allegations of abuse by Miami-Dade Police Department officers, the panel is gearing up to hear its first case next week.

But the milestone comes at a precarious time. The Florida Legislature earlier this month passed a measure transferring all of the Miami-Dade Police Department to whoever is elected sheriff in November of 2024 — if the police department is dissolved in its entirety, the elected sheriff would have the ability to opt out of the oversight mechanism.

For Loreal Arscott, the chairwoman of the Independent Civilian Panel, the uncertain future of the panel’s countywide authority only makes the coming weeks and months more important.

“We have a year and some change to show the residents of this county, countywide, what the panel is going to do, what the panel has done,” Arscott told WLRN. “We hope that whoever the next sheriff is will see the benefit in the value of police oversight.”

The new pane will have the ability to investigate complaints of alleged police misconduct received directly from the community. It will also be able to launch investigations into cases on its own initiative, and to review “certain patterns of practice that are of concern to the residents,” said Arscott.

Arscott said she “would be surprised” if the position on police oversight does not become an issue in the sheriff’s race. “Oversight has been a hot topic. I’m sure that will probably come up,” she added.

Miami-Dade County has not had an elected sheriff since 1966, when voters opted to eliminate the position due to widespread corruption. Since then, Miami-Dade has been the only county in Florida with no elected sheriff. But a 2018 statewide ballot amendment required the county to elect a sheriff by 2024.

The county commission voted last year to turn over only select parts of the Miami-Dade Police Department to the new sheriff in 2024, and keep the largest police department in the state largely intact. The bill passed by the legislature effectively takes that option off the table, requiring the entire police force to be handed over to the sheriff. Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill into law.

'We're here. This is how we get the work done'

Arscott said regardless of what ultimately happens with the sheriff or the Miami-Dade Police Department, the panel will continue to perform important oversight work.

The ordinance that created the panel allows municipalities that don’t have their own civilian police oversight boards to have cases heard through the county panel. The only two municipalities in the county that have independent oversight boards are the City of Miami and the City of North Miami.

“Communities such as Opa-Locka, Miami Shores, Miami Gardens, Hialeah – everyone except for those two municipalities can buy into the county's oversight entity, if they chose,” said Arscott.

“We want to show the residents of those municipalities: 'We're here. This is how we get the work done. Is this something that you think your community needs?' If you live in one of those municipalities, you may want to talk to your council members to encourage them to enter into a [memorandum of understanding] with us.”

Details of the first case — to be heard on May 23 — have not yet been released in a public agenda, and Arscott said she will not discuss it before the meeting. “I don't want by any means for the perception to be that we are already biased in our opinions,” she said.

The panel does not have the ability to directly discipline any officers found to have violated procedures and best practices. Instead, the panel will issue recommendations for things like additional training, suspension or other disciplinary measures to the relevant commission or police department.

“If we find that the offense rises to the level of a criminal infraction, we can also refer that issue to the state attorney's office or the proper authorities,” said Arscott.

In the case that the panel finds allegations of misconduct are unfounded or unsustained, it will issue a report clearing the officers involved.

Panel was defunded, vetoed and re-started 'from scratch'

Miami-Dade County previously had a similar panel that investigated allegations of police misconduct. It was created in 1980 after City of Miami officers killed Black motorist Arthur McDuffie during a traffic stop, sparking widespread civil unrest and calls for police oversight.

That panel was active for 29 years, until it was defunded in 2009 during the financial crisis.

In 2018, then-mayor Carlos Gimenez vetoed the resurrection of the panel, saying he was “not entirely convinced” there was a need for it.

Calls for a new panel resurged in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin. That year, Gimenez again vetoed the creation of the panel over concerns that it could exercise subpoena power .

On the third try, Gimenez declared he would not veto the measure and allow it to go into effect after subpoena powers were removed. The revamped panel passed the commission with an 8-5 vote.

But since it passed, the panel has struggled to seat and train its members. Then the county’s first choice for executive director decided she no longer wanted the job. And even after the panel was filled and trained, some members have not shown up, preventing meetings from happening due to lack of quorum. Overall, the process has dragged on, with some activists expressing frustration that it has taken so long to start hearing cases.

In February, the panel hired Ursula Price to be the executive director, and now things are moving forward. Price was previously the executive director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice.

Chairwoman Arscott, who was appointed to the panel by Commissioner Oliver Gilbert III, said she understands frustration from members of the community about how long it has taken to get cases heard.

“I agree. I wish that when the ordinance passed in 2020 that the panel would have been empaneled in 2020. Change is slow, unfortunately. Bureaucracy, red tape. There have been a lot of barriers to our success,” she said.

“We were literally starting from scratch. I have no intention to make any excuses to the community. I share in their frustration, and we've been continuing to champion the cause and to do the work that we can, within the parameters that we have.”

This story is published as part of a collaboration between City & State Florida and WLRN NewsDaniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org

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