As demonstrations against police brutality continue on American streets, local governments are gauging what changes they can make now. Candidates vying to be Miami-Dade County Mayor spoke with NBC 6 about what police reforms they would support as leader of the largest county in the state and where thousands have taken to the street over the past week to protest.
Independent Review Panel
Former Mayor Alex Penelas, commissioners Steve Bovo, Daniella Levine Cava, and Xavier Suarez, and foundation founder Monique Nicole Barley all agree some type of independent review panel needs to oversee the police department in the county. They differ on the details.
One big difference separating Bovo from the others is he only supports a panel with power to advise and recommend action. He would not support - and has voted against similar measures in the past - a panel with subpoena power that could dish out punishment over police department.
“I don’t want to turn these into an us against you kind of mentality. Which unfortunately, listening today to the public safety committee, it’s starting to mushroom into that,” said Bovo, talking about the lengthy public hearing over the issue, where many people had strong words against local police practices.
There are some hurdles in place that could limit any subpoena power put in county ordinances. The state Supreme Court in 2017 declared the Miami civilian review panel’s subpoena power to be unconstitutional. Without it, they cannot compel officers to cooperate with an investigation. The court ruled subpoenaing officers violate a statute in Florida law known as the Police Bill of Rights.
An effort to give citizens subpoena power working in conjunction with other law enforcement entities or another way the county commission can find a path will likely be met with lawsuits.
The county used to have a review panel until 2009 when the commission stripped its funding during the budget crunch caused by the 2008 recession. In 2018, it almost returned but was vetoed by current Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. He said at the time he would only support a panel appointed by the Board of County Commissioners and not community organizations.
Bringing the review panel back is led by Commissioner Barbara Jordan. The commission expects to vote on the issue next week at the June 16 meeting.
Suarez supports it and wants one “that has the power to make decisions, not just to recommend it. We don’t have that in the county.”
Suarez wants to lean on the experience in the City of Miami - where the community has a review panel and his son, Francis Suarez, is the mayor.
Penelas supports a panel with subpoena power and believes it could work with another agency like the State Attorney’s Office to use subpoena power. But Penelas worries about having all the members of the panel being appointed by commissioners, political positions that require running for elections.
“Actually giving more transparency and more trust to citizens, actually makes police work better,” Penelas said.
Cava also supports giving the panel subpoena power and wants community interest groups to recommend people on the panel and then be approved by the commission. Cava and Penelas both support putting the panel in the county charter, which will make it more difficult to defund or eliminate in the future.
“It must be the kind of structure that is truly independent. I will fight to make sure it truly is that,” Cava said.
All of the candidates say they’d support a panel coming from different sectors of the community, including people with law enforcement experience, but also judges, civil rights attorneys and community organizations.
“We should be able to call the proper channel and have them start an investigation and subpoena whatever needs to be subpoenaed,” Barley said.
Police unions and law enforcement supporters, who are often key voting blocs in local elections, oppose civilian oversight of their internal investigations into police misconduct. But since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a wave of reform could be coming. Time will tell if the wave crashes against entrenched forces or continues to roll into new policy territory.
Candidates oppose 'defunding the police'
Protestors and racial justice organizations have also broadly called to “defund the police.” In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, the city council pledged to “defund the police” by dismantling the current organization and rebuilding it as another type of agency.
Miami-Dade mayor candidates told NBC 6 they do not support that type of measure.
Barley said she thinks there should be more police on the street.
“Because we don’t have enough. The police officers are supposed to be equal in proportion to the amount of constituents and residents you have in your county. So we’re under staffed with the police officers,” Barley said. Especially, she says, in the area of Miami Gardens.
Bovo says he would not support lowering the police budget in favor of shifting resources to items like mental health and community development programs. He supports a more surgical approach to tinker with “bad apple” cops and evolve with problems as they arise.
“Rethinking everything about our police only feeds into what I think is a very, very loud, minority,” Bovo said.
Penelas doesn’t support defunding police either but supports increasing the budget to affordable housing and mental health. If that money comes from law enforcement aspects like the county jail, that’s fine, he says. He would oppose it if it takes police officers out of areas of the county.
“The largest provider of psychiatric care in the state of Florida is the Miami-Dade County Corrections Department. That’s not a good allocation of resources,” Penelas said.
Cava and Suarez seemed to be the most open to reallocating resources from the police department. They oppose gutting the police department in favor of restructuring. They do, however, support reprioritizing items currently being spent.
“I am not about defunding the police. I am about looking at community needs and allocating resources to where they are most needed,” Cava said.
“There are aspects of it that are just very inefficient, including too many people in high ranks,” Suarez said.
The head of the Miami-Dade County Police Department told commissioners they avoid controversial maneuvers like chokeholds. But that move is not against the law in the county. All five candidates who spoke to NBC 6 say they support making chokeholds against the law in Miami-Dade.
The primary election is in August. The top two candidates will face each other in the November election.