The U.S. Justice Department is launching a civil investigation into the policies and training involving deadly force in the Miami Police Department following the deaths of seven black men in officer-involved shootings.
The "pattern and practice" probe will focus on whether systemic flaws made the shootings, which occurred over an eight-month period between July 2010 and February 2011, more likely.
"The department’s investigation will seek to determine whether there are systemic violations of the Constitution or federal law by officers of MPD," the Justice Department said in a statement.
Thomas E. Perez, the head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, and Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, announced the investigation at a news conference Thursday.
"We hope to strengthen the confidence of the citizens in the police department," Ferrer said, adding that a preliminary inquiry began in the spring after they received several calls from concerned citizens.
Of the seven shootings, all but one is still being investigated by the State Attorney's Office and police.
"The New York Police Department had one fatal shooting for every 4,313 officers in 2010, when Miami had one fatal shooting for every 220 officers," Perez said.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder in August asking for a Justice Department investigation into the force. Regalado's request came several months after similar requests from groups like the ACLU and NAACP, as well as individuals like U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson and Reverend Al Sharpton.
"Basically we asked for this investigation and we believe it will bring closure to the concern of the community," Regalado said.
The shootings happened under the leadership of former Chief Miguel Exposito, who was fired in September for insubordination. Exposito had said the shootings were justified, though some of the victims were found to be unarmed.
"I applaud that the feds finally got involved in the investigation that we need," Community activist Rev. Jerome Starling said.
Exposito released a statement Thursday, saying he had invited he Justice Department to participate in all post-shooting meetings, and adding that the number of shootings in his first year as chief were no more than the last year of the previous chief.
Exposito said violent crimes like robberies and sexual assaults "dropped to levels not seen in Miami in over 40 years" as a result of his doubling the number of tactical officers on the streets.
"I trust that this is not an attempt by the U.S. Attorney’s office to politicize what should otherwise be an apolitical process," Exposito said.
The Justice Department investigation will focus on training methods, leadership and practices, and won't be a criminal investigation.
Ferrer and Perez met with Regalado and new Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa Thursday morning and were meeting with officers in the afternoon.
Perez and Ferrer said they're not looking at individual conduct but rather the system, and that if any wrongdoing or violations are found, they would be turned over to the civil rights division and could lead to potential criminal charges.
They said they didn't know when the investigation would conclude.
Meanwhile, the State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle released a statement saying her office has offered to help the U.S. Attorney, if needed.
"However, because of the partnership we have with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida, we routinely provide them with copies of close-out memos on our police shooting cases in order for them to determine whether any Federal laws have been violated," she said in a statement.