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Miami's police monitor — new Tampa Mayor Jane Castor — wants to end federal oversight

MIAMI — When the U.S. Department of Justice determined three years ago that Miami cops had engaged in a pattern of excessive use of force, former Tampa police chief Jane Castor was appointed to look over the department's shoulder for up to four years.

On Thursday, Castor, elected Tampa's mayor two days earlier, visited City Hall and said she believes Miami's department has satisfied the agreement's requirements regarding policies for the investigation of police-involved shootings, the provision of adequate training and supervision for rank-and-file cops, the employment of special units and use of the force.

"I'm in discussions with the Department of Justice," Castor told the Miami Herald. "It is my opinion that Miami has satisfied all of the requirements of the agreement."

Some disagree. The chairman of the citizen oversight board mandated by the agreement was frustrated when he first learned of Castor's assessment from a reporter. While he respects Castor and believes she is well-intentioned, he pointed to documented misuse of body-worn cameras as evidence that there is still a need for federal oversight and more community meetings.

"I think about what we're seeing in terms of body-worn cameras, that things are being reported that weren't on body-worn cameras," said Justin Pinn, chairman of Miami's Community Advisory Board. "I just don't see how we can be in substantial compliance if these incidents keep happening."

Since 2016, Castor has served as Miami police's $150-an-hour independent monitor under an agreement with the Justice Department. To end the oversight, the city and the Justice Department would have to agree that Miami police have substantially complied with the agreement for at least a year. The Department of Justice declined to comment on whether it would support ending the agreement a year before the March 2020 deadline.

Fresh off an election where Tampa voters made her the first gay woman to lead a major Florida city, Castor was commended by city officials when she visited Thursday. Chief Jorge Colina told commissioners Castor has been a key adviser during his year as Miami's top cop.

"Not only has she come in and really scrutinized every last layer of how we operate the police department, but she's been very frank in some of the deficiencies that she has found or have been brought to her attention."

The Justice Department reviewed 33 police shootings from 2008 to 2011, including the deadly shooting of seven black men over an eight-month period. In 2013, federal authorities issued a scathing report that found Miami cops had engaged in a pattern of "excessive use of deadly force" and the department needed reform.

In 2016, Miami commissioners approved a 22-page agreement to set new policies for the use of force and other issues, and that called for a federal monitor to make sure the department complied. The Department of Justice and Miami agreed to appoint Castor to look over the city's shoulder until March 2020, the deadline by which the city has to prove it has met and held the goals of the agreement for a full year in order for federal oversight to end.

Castor has a contract to be the police department's independent reviewer. Scheduled to be sworn in as mayor Wednesday, she said she would continue her work for Miami pro bono after she takes office. She is still reviewing the department's police training and management structure.

"This is the last contract I have," said Castor, who owns a law enforcement consultancy.

Early on in her role, Castor fell behind schedule on delivering an initial report to the Justice Department on the police department's progress. Since 2016, she has submitted five reports, short of the requirement to submit a new report every four months as outlined in the agreement.

Former Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said he wholeheartedly agrees with the recommendation to end the oversight. Llanes said most of the issues under watch were taken care of long before the 2016 agreement.

"My sentiments," the former chief said, "are that there was no need."

Asked if he had any issues with the department's training or use-of-force policies, Llanes said, "I didn't see any when I left and I think we had come a long way before we signed the agreement."

He said many of the shootings the Justice Department was looking into came from undercover task forces in which Miami cops worked with federal agents. But most of those units were either disbanded or consolidated under the watch of Police Chief Manuel Orosa, before Llanes was named chief.

Horacio Aguirre, who chaired the city's civilian investigative panel until a year ago, also agrees with Castor.

"Llanes left a good order," said Aguirre. "I think you're seeing a very different, new and improved police department than what we had 10 years ago.

"Colina is saying some cops are bad cops," which was unheard of for a chief to say, Aguirre said, referring to the current police chief. "If Castor thinks they've made progress, I would agree."

On the other hand, Pinn sees more value in maintaining the agreement for the last year to keep fostering a community conversation on the department's policies, from training police officers to combat implicit bias to ensuring they turn on body-worn cameras when required and file accurate reports about their encounters.

One Miami police officer was cleared after kicking at a robbery suspect's head as he went to the ground. Another resigned after blocking his bodycam video with his hand.

In January, the Herald reported on footage from a body-worn camera that contradicted the use-of-force report filed by Miami officers.

The footage showed a sergeant kicked at the face of a man who was facedown on the ground with his hands up, and other officers beat him. The police report afterward stated the man had his hands under his body, and the cops feared he was "reaching for a weapon."

For a section of the video from one officer's body camera, the officer covers the camera with his hand.

Pinn said he thinks there's more room for the department to improve its relationship with the public.

"What is the harm in allowing this agreement to live the shelf life it was given?" Pinn said.

Castor's comments came a day after another case involving another police officer kicking at a defenseless man was thrown out of court. The officer, Mario Figueroa, was acquitted after being charged with kicking at a handcuffed suspect's head.

The incident drew criticism from the public after a video of the arrest surfaced online when the incident occurred in May 2018. Among the critics: Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who immediately called the officer's actions "disgusting and cowardly."

A city of Miami police officer was relieved of duty by the department after a video surfaced that shows him kicking a defenseless suspect in the head.

Hardemon did not opine on whether the department still needs federal oversight, but he said he's seen improvements, particularly with the leadership style of Colina, who on Wednesday said he still believes the officer who was acquitted did not deserve a badge.

"It appears to me that Chief Colina is the type of police chief that's trying to ensure there's a respectable relationship between his police force and our community," Hardemon said.