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Article updated: 7/9/2013 2:40 PM

US finds Miami police excessive force in shootings

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By Associated Press

MIAMI -- The U.S. Justice Department has found for the second time in a decade that the Miami Police Department engaged in a pattern of excessive use of force in shootings of suspects, including seven black men fatally shot by officers over an eight-month period ending in 2011.

The department's Civil Rights Division released the findings of an 18-month investigation Tuesday and said it will seek a federal court order to ensure necessary department changes are made permanent and overseen by a judge. That did not happen following a 2002 civil rights probe that also found Miami officers used excessive force.

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"We are disappointed to find that the problem is back," said Roy Austin, deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights.

The investigation began in November 2011, shortly after the firing of former Police Chief Miguel Exposito amid an outcry from black community leaders about the shootings. Exposito had created specialized tactical squads that focused intensely on high-crime areas, but also increased the likelihood of violent confrontations.

His replacement as chief, Manuel Orosa, has dismantled those units and changed tactics, leading to a sharp decrease in shootings since 2012, the report noted.

In a statement Tuesday, Orosa said he has implemented many reforms and will work with the Justice Department to make changes permanent, although he added many findings needed unspecified clarification.

"The Miami Police Department will strive to continue providing professional police services in accordance with the tenets of the Constitution of the United States of America," Orosa said.

Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said federal officials will negotiate with the police department on policy changes and reforms to present to a federal judge. He said court oversight is likely to last several years.

"We are confident that the findings and conclusions of this investigation will be heeded," Ferrer said.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the report mirrors what his group and others have been saying for years.

"But as significant as these findings are, ultimately, someone needs to be held responsible for the deaths and the violation of constitutional rights," Simon said. "We expect a follow-up investigation into the conduct of the Miami Police Department officers who were responsible."

The Justice Department report found that between 2008 and 2011, Miami officers fired shots at someone 33 times. In contrast, investigators noted that during one 20-month period in 2002-04, no Miami police officer fired a gun at a suspect.

Only seven officers were responsible for a third of the 2008-11 shootings, three of which were found unjustified by internal police investigators. No officers have been charged criminally. One officer has been dismissed by the department after he shot and killed an unarmed motorist and wounded an unarmed passenger.

Five of the officers involved in the fatal shootings of black suspects have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing, said state attorney spokesman Ed Griffith. Two remain under investigation.

The Justice Department investigation found numerous deficiencies at the Miami Police Department, including:

--Officers used poor tactics, such as poor marksmanship, shooting from too far away, failing to wait for backup in a possibly armed confrontation and firing at moving vehicles.

--Specialized units often used unmarked vehicles and officers dressed as civilians, raising the likelihood of violence.

--Shooting investigations encountered lengthy delays, including one in 2009 in which the officer and witnesses still have not provided statements to investigators. Justice Department investigators say such delays mean corrective actions are not taken or policy changes not made, meaning avoidable shootings continue to happen.

--Police shooting investigations are inadequate and often don't probe deeply enough into whether officers had non-lethal options available. In some cases, the physical shooting scene wasn't preserved properly.

The 2002 Justice Department probe began after 13 Miami police officers were indicted in conspiracy charges for planting evidence, including guns, to undermine investigations into four officer-involved shootings. Although the latest cases are not that egregious, Civil Rights Division investigators said, many of the same institutional problems were found both times.

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