Miami police shootings raise questions

Since early July, Miami
police have been involved in four fatal shootings in the inner city, a deadly
volley surpassing the total for all of last year.

From Overtown to Little
Haiti, shooting scenes have given way to sudden memorials, candlelight vigils
and funerals in a community that struggles to balance a complicated
relationship with the police.

Though it’s too soon to
tell if the shootings were justified, the cluster of fatalities has many people
in Overtown, Little Haiti, and Liberty City on edge, and some wonder if police
under new Chief Miguel Exposito have become overly aggressive.

“It just seems like
everything is out of control,” said local NAACP President Bishop Victor Curry.
“I’m hoping his brand of leadership won’t take us back.”

Only a decade ago the
department’s reputation suffered nationally as several officers were charged,
and ultimately imprisoned, for plotting to plant guns in questionable shootings
and lying to investigators. The US Department of Justice and former police
chief John Timoney were brought in to clean up the mess.

At one point under Mr.
Timoney, Miami police went almost two years without shooting at a person.

Today, the blood-stained,
bullet-ridden wall at Northwest 62nd Street and Second Avenue sits as a
memorial. Burnt candles and other signs of affection rest idly by in memory of
Gibson Junior Belizaire, 21, shot and killed eight days ago during what police
report was a gun battle after a domestic violence call.  The mayor and police chief called the
shooting justified. They say Belizaire fired at them several times after a car
stop and foot chase. Family members say the were unaware
he had a gun.

“I want justice,” said
Belizaire’s brother Wesley Belizaire. “I don’t think this is justified.”

Though statistically the
numbers are only slightly above previous years — Miami police report they shot
and killed three people in 2008, and three more in 2009 — some believe police
should alter their tactics to avoid situations that force them to shoot. “They
need to get out of their cars and start walking in the neighbourhoods and
meeting some of the residents,” said Willie L. Williams, who owns Just Right
Barbershop in Overtown and is also a pastor. “They need to start bonding with
the community. People are getting very angry toward the ones who are killing.”

Mr. Exposito said the
spate of shootings can’t be controlled and a suspect’s actions dictate an
officer’s response.

“Sometimes you could go
months, even years, without a confrontation. And then, in a short time span,
you’ll have two or three of these shootings,” he said.  Some of the perception problems can also be
traced to the department’s troubled history and an administrative makeover that
catapulted officers with ties to the new political leadership to senior posts.

Others say it doesn’t
help when politicians ramp up the rhetoric, like the mayor showing up at crime
scenes, or when police release too few details about the shootings to the
public.

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