Federal investigators announced Thursday they will be conducting an investigation into a string of shootings involving Miami police officers.
The civil investigation into the Miami Police Department will work to determine whether the fatal shootings of seven black men by Miami police officers during an eight-month period were justified.
The shootings sparked outrage and calls for an independent investigation. The Miami Police Department was criticized for failing to communicate with the families of the slain men, claiming the investigation limited what it could discuss.
"The Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney's Office will be conducting an investigation into certain aspects of the work of the city of Miami Police Department," said U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer. "Specifically, the investigation will focus on whether the city of Miami Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive use of deadly force against civilians."
"This is a very surgical and a very specific inquiry," said Thomas Perez, of the U.S. Department of Justice.
"We are not here to lay blame or to cast suspicion," Ferrer said. "We are here to learn, detect possible flaws or problems or violations, and if they exist, to fix them."
Though focused on department training, supervision and structural issues, the Justice Department has an eye toward reviewing the State Attorney's Office's criminal investigations into each shooting, including that of an unarmed man named DeCarlos Moore, who was killed by a rookie officer last summer after police said he disobeyed orders and reaching for something inside his car. The officer was cleared.
Sheila McNeil has yet to be told why a Miami police officer fatally shot her son, Travis, who apparently was unarmed, after a traffic stop in February.
"I just pray it's not a smokescreen, that they're actually going to get in here and do some things and make some changes, because our city desperately needs it," McNeil said.
"The only time anything ever got fixed was when the feds came in," said McNeil's mother, Ronique Robinson.
"They're not going to get us where we would like to be, but they may move us," said Brad Brown, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The families and activists were invited to meet with the federal investigators. That followed meetings with Miami's interim police chief and Miami's mayor, who requested the probe in the midst of a political standoff with former Police Chief Miguel Exposito.
"If there would have been a different reaction by the state's attorney to some of these shootings, I'm not sure the federal government would be here," said Howard Simon, of the American Civil Liberties Union Florida.
Exposito, who was head of the Police Department at the time of the shootings, released a statement Thursday afternoon, which said in part, "I welcome any investigation into the actions of the officers, so much so that I invited the U.S. Justice Department, through the FBI's Civil Rights Division, to participate in all of our post-shooting meetings where evidence and material facts were discussed at length."
Ferrer pointed out that the city of Miami is fully participating in the investigation.
The probe fully launched Thursday, and it is unclear how long it will take.