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Police Shootings: A look at Milwaukee and Miami

Posted on Aug 06, 2013

The city of Miami and the city of Milwaukee, like all American cities, trust the local police to maintain public safety. But what happens if police conduct creates unsafe conditions? Resolving the problem of police shootings is of paramount importance  because such issues can strain the relationship between any police department and its community.Here, let's look at how Miami and Milwaukee have handled recent issues with police conduct.

Miami Police Department

Back in 2002, the reputation of the Miami Police Department (MPD) was marred by the excessive amount of police shootings involving civilians. But shortly thereafter, things changed drastically as Miami experienced a 20-month span from 2002-2004 in which no MPD officer fired a single shot at a civilian.

At the time, 13 MPD officers were on trial for shooting civilians and the United States Department of Justice had just launched an investigation regarding their use of deadly and non-deadly force. Remarkably, the 20-month period between December 2002 and September 2004, when no MPD officer discharged a firearm, prompted the Department of Justice to close the investigation in 2006.

Under the leadership of Chief John Timoney, who took over in 2003, MPD’s revised shooting policies resulted in increased accountability and supervision within the department. Officers were forbidden from shooting at motor vehicles (in most cases) and Taser stun guns were issued to give officers another way to apprehend temperamental suspects without using deadly force.

Additionally, MPD used specially trained and selected Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs) to deal with emotionally distressed people. These CITs, much like hostage negotiators, were trained to diffuse highly contentious situations without resorting to violence. Chief Timoney also cites the department’s mindset of taking an extra half-second to “think before you shoot” as a critical component of the turnaround.

However, according to the Department of Justice’s report on MPD, “Between 2008 and 2011, MPD officers intentionally shot at individuals 33 times.” Inexplicably, only 24 of those shootings have been fully investigated and some cases have been open for several years. In fact, MPD’s own internal investigations have deemed 3 of those 24 shootings unjustifiable but that hasn’t seemed to expedite their investigative process.

Certain MPD officers were involved in multiple incidents. Seven officers were disproportionately involved in over one-third of the 33 shootings. MPD hasn’t even gone as far as to retrain their officers in the aftermath of shootings. The Department of Justice is concerned that MPD squandered these valuable learning opportunities with “inadequate and untimely investigations.” Such issues also implicitly indicate an absence of officer accountability and institutional control.

Milwaukee Police Department

On a local level, Milwaukee Police has also been known to use excessive force from time to time. In an extreme case, Officer Kevin Clark slammed the fully cooperative Curtis Harris’ head into a concrete wall while in police custody. No disciplinary action was taken against Clark or any of the other officers involved but Clark was later fired for an unrelated incident. Harris is now a quadriplegic for life but he did at least receive a $3 million settlement to help cover his medical bills thanks to the law firm of Hupy and Abraham. This is the largest police brutality settlement in Wisconsin history.

The city of Milwaukee has a problem when the community and police department seem to be at odds. Community outrage has stemmed from the Milwaukee Police Department’s decision not to discipline anyone involved in the homicide of 22-year-old Derek Williams while in police custody.

Williams can be heard, on video, pleading for help and telling police that he can’t breathe. Unfortunately, Williams didn’t receive any medical attention until it was too late. The officers involved claim they weren’t convinced that Williams was genuinely in need of help and were acquitted on this basis.

As citizens protested the death of Williams, they were reminded of the unpleasant memory of 22-year-old Daniel Bell’s death in 1958. Bell, unarmed, was shot and killed by Officer Thomas Grady who then planted a knife on Bell to make it look like he posed a threat. Grady initially got away with it until his partner implicated him 20 years later. The personal injury law firm of Hupy and Abraham helped Bell’s family obtain a settlement of $1.6 million.

In 2005, off-duty Milwaukee officer Alfonzo Glover shot and killed Wilbert Prado, who was highly intoxicated, after he initiated a traffic confrontation. Although Glover was charged with homicide before committing suicide in 2006, the incident still raised controversy because some people felt Milwaukee’s “always on duty” rule led Glover to shoot.

Much like the city of Miami, Milwaukee faces sensitive issues regarding police violence. Though their job is stressful and difficult, it is important that police refrain from using deadly force whenever possible so the community can trust them. Miami’s 20-month span of zero police shootings proves that it can be done. However, since the Department of Justice closed its investigation into the Miami Police Department, many of those same problems have re-emerged.