Miami Police Chief Under Fire For Fatal Police Shootings

Tensions are rising in Miami over a spate of shootings involving police officers. Seven men have been shot dead by police in the past eight months. All were African American and two of the men were reportedly unarmed. The shootings have sparked outrage in Miami's black inner-city communities amid claims of excessive police tactics. City of Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado has joined calls for Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito to resign. Host Michel Martin speaks to Chief Exposito about the shootings and the controversy surrounding them.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL More from NPR News.

Later in the program, we will remember Geraldine Ferraro. She was the first woman to be nominated for national office on a major party ticket. She died over the weekend, and we will tell you about her path-breaking career.

But first, we go to Miami, which is struggling once again with an issue that has been a source of tension in that city as well as many others around the country, police-involved shootings.

In the past eight months, seven men have been shot dead by Miami police officers, all of the deceased were African-American. Two of those men were reportedly unarmed.

The shootings have sparked outrage in Miami's black inner city communities and prompted calls for investigations, and some officials are demanding that Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito resign.

The tension around the shootings comes against a backdrop of a historically troubled relationship between Miami's African-American communities, and its majority Hispanic police force. All of the officers involved in the recent shootings are Hispanic.

In a few minutes, we will from Florida Congresswoman, Frederica Wilson, who is calling on the Justice Department to launch a civil rights probe into the incidents. But first, we wanted to hear from the chief himself. Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito is on the line with us from his office in Miami. Chief, thank you so much for joining us.

Chief MIGUEL EXPOSITO (Chief of Police, Miami Police Department): Hello, Michel. Glad to be here with you.

MARTIN: And in the spirit of full disclosure, I think I should mention that six members of my family are members of the New York - or have been members of the New York City Police Department. I don't know if that's relevant, but I thought I'd mention it if it is. Chief, may I ask you, do you think there's a problem?

Chief EXPOSITO: Well, any time our officers are involved in any kind of discharge of firearm, there's always a concern on the part of the department regardless of what the situations.

MARTIN: And so...

Chief EXPOSITO: So there's a problem, but I think that one of the things that has been said that I think is not totally accurate is the community hasn't come out in protesting the police. This is - you're talking about one group of 50 people is what - the most they've gotten in some of these rallies. But we have tremendous support in the African-American community as we do in all the communities in Miami.

MARTIN: So if there's a problem, what is the problem?

Chief EXPOSITO: Well, the problem has been that, you know, when I first took over as police chief, that community came to me and asked - basically begged that we do something about the violent crimes in their neighborhood. Children couldn't go out in the street because they were being shot by stray bullets. Innocent people were being hit, and they begged us to go into that neighborhood and do something about it, and that's exactly what we've done.

Apparently we're not doing enough. We had another shooting this weekend where an eight-year-old child was struck, and her mother, as they were leaving their home, and obviously we're still concerned about the violence in that community.

MARTIN: What do you - do you have an opinion about why these shootings have occurred? Is it that you feel that the individuals involved were what, not complaint, or what?

Chief EXPOSITO: That's been part of the problem. I mean, I can't get into the specifics of the cases, but in some cases people are not complying with orders from the officers. In other cases, people were heavily armed, and...

MARTIN: But what about the two individuals who were not armed, in which no weapons were found?

Chief EXPOSITO: Well, like I said, I don't want to get into specifics, but part of the problem is non-compliance. And the officer - we have a community that's been very violent. Two officers from an adjoining municipality came into our city to arrest someone and they were shot and killed a couple of months ago in the same communities where these shootings have taken place.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you, though, there was a hearing last week, a public hearing into the shootings. The City of Miami Commission held these things, you were there. You heard from Sheila McNeil who testified about the death of 28-year-old son, Travis. He was shot after being pulled over for reckless driving, and this was what she had to say, and I'll just play a short clip. And I know that you've heard this before, but for those who have not, here it is.

Ms. SHEILA McNEIL: I just feel mistreated in so many ways by these people who are sworn to protect and serve us. I have grandchildren that I've always taught if you're ever in any trouble, you find yourself an officer and he going to help you, baby. Now, these same kids are coming to me and asking me questions about what happened to their uncle. They hear the news.

We don't openly talk about what happened around them, because I do not want them to lose respect for the law. All policemen are not bad, but just like any other profession, you have good and you have bad people in it. This guy who killed my son, I don't know what happened, was he afraid, or what happened, but you can't tell me my son did anything to provoke his death.

MARTIN: Is that reasonable for someone in these circumstances to want to know the full circumstances? And are you planning to address her questions at some point?

Chief EXPOSITO: Well, once the case has been vetted through the state attorney's office, she will get full disclosure. But one thing I do not want to is jeopardize our case by going out and - I could be egotistical and get all this pressure off me and go out and tell you everything I know about these cases, but that would very irresponsible on my part.

Because the last thing I want to do is jeopardize one of these cases and have a bad cop if one of these shootings turns out to be an unjustified shooting and they walk, because I chose to be irresponsible and come out and make comments about these cases.

MARTIN: The mayor has called for your resignation. I understand that this decision is actually in the hands of the city manager.

Chief EXPOSITO: Yeah.

MARTIN: But can you continue to lead the department when you don't have the confidence of the city's chief executive?

Chief EXPOSITO: Well, you know, there's a story behind the story. The mayor was very supportive of us during the first few shootings, and so was the commissioner for that area.

And last year, I - we did some gambling machine operations in that area and it involved organized crime. Actually, it's call the Corporation. It's a major organized crime group out of New York that's been involved in dozens of murders and firebombing of businesses.

Well, some of those individuals supported the mayor financially for his bid to run for office. And I sent a letter to the mayor, with copies to the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the FBI telling them, do not interfere with this operations, because he was ordering them stopped. And that's when everything soured between the mayor and I.

MARTIN: Will you please keep us informed, chief, of what your plans are next? We'd like to follow this story.

Chief EXPOSITO: Well, I certainly do not plan on leaving. I can't get into the details, but as I mentioned, letters were sent to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office because clearly the mayor was interfering with the operation of our police department.

MARTIN: Miguel Exposito is chief of the City of Miami Police Department. He was kind enough to join us from his office at police headquarters in Miami. Chief, thank you for joining us.

Chief EXPOSITO: Thank you, Michel.

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