Miami-Dade finds justice reform a tough task two months after George Floyd’s death

The proposal before Miami-Dade commissioners called for a study on using mental-health specialists instead of

The proposal before Miami-Dade commissioners called for a study on using mental-health specialists instead of police on some 911 calls. It wasn’t an easy request.

“I strongly oppose something like this that is going to put at risk the lives of the residents that pay the taxes … in an emergency,” Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said in opposing the plan for a study on creating a “mobile crisis intervention team” in Miami-Dade. “I cannot justify to my constituents that a 911 person is going to decide whether to send a civilian … or a police officer.”

Two months after the death of George Floyd sparked a wave of demonstrations in Miami and beyond pushing for police reform, the latest online meeting of the Miami-Dade County Commission showed how the movement is having its moment as well as facing an uphill battle.

At the start of the meeting, dozens of callers spoke out against a complicated Miami-Dade plan to borrow as much as $443 million to demolish a Miami jail built in 1959 and replace it with a 2,000-bed modern complex somewhere in the western part of the county. While police chiefs told commissioners they endorsed the idea, residents spoke out against the expenditure and urged Miami-Dade to invest in helping people instead.

“Incarceration has proven a failure to make citizens safer, or restore community,” Tina Bernard, a Miami resident, said during the public’s chance to speak on the jail item. “This is a blatant continuation of systemic racism that heavily convicts Black men and people of color. … I’m firmly opposed.”

At issue was whether the 13 commissioners would accept an administration report laying out potential options for the 1,400-bed Pretrial Detention Center near the Jackson hospital complex.

One option was to build a new complex next to the existing Turner Guilford Knight jail in a suburban area that includes Virginia Gardens and Miami Springs. Residents don’t want that detention center to expand, citing a stream of people released from jail with no easy way to get home as they walk through residential neighborhoods.

Putting the jail complex there would save staffing costs. Another option is to seek state land near the existing federal Krome detention center in western Miami-Dade. Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he’s willing to propose a pricier detention plan, but that federal regulators won’t let the county continue indefinitely with its aging jails.

“The current facility is untenable,” Gimenez said before accusing opponents of the plan of wanting to see the county face a court order to release inmates for inhumane conditions. “They probably were the same people carrying ‘Empty the Jails’ signs in the demonstrations.”

Commissioners agreed to accept the administration’s report, and Gimenez said the Corrections Department would come back with more options for jail locations.

The meeting began with commissioners failing to override a rare veto by Gimenez, which invalidated legislation reviving the county’s civilian oversight board for police. Gimenez objected to giving the board subpoena power.

On Tuesday, commissioners gave preliminary approval to weaker legislation Gimenez said he would support, which revives the board but bars it from issuing subpoenas to county employees or elected officeholders.

The request for a study on deploying civilian crisis teams came from Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who also proposed the police-board legislation that Gimenez vetoed. Her resolution said Denver and Portland, Oregon, are experimenting with a new category of first responders made up of civilian behavioral-health specialists trained in deescalating situations where treatment is a better option than police involvement.

Gimenez said he was willing to study the concept, but that he couldn’t imagine not sending police on those types of emergency calls. The item eventually passed with only one No vote from Sosa, after Jordan sounded exhausted in defending the idea of being open to new approaches.

“It’s not to defund the police. It’s not to do anything harmful. I wish we would stop feeling threatened by any recommendation that comes up.”

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