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Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
March 2020

North Miami Police Department regains accreditation

OPix_MarkSell_3-20n February 20, the North Miami Police Department used its mightiest weapon to win back its reputation: civilians. It won, big time.

The Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation (CFA) restored the police department’s state accreditation four years after the city was forced to relinquish it. The commission did so at its meeting at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, where Chief Larry Juriga introduced his command staff, the mayor, the interim city manager, and civilians resembling a cross section of North Miami. For the commission, it was a rare and welcome show of force.

It didn’t just get back its accreditation. The commission heaped praise on the department with words like “exemplary” and “flawless,” in keeping with a recent 13-page assessors’ report -- a sharp contrast to the May 2016 report citing enough deficiencies to sink the department’s accreditation.

“Those words pleased us,” says Juriga. Leaving nothing to chance this time, the department came armed with dozens of letters of endorsements from community leaders, police departments, organizations, and neighborhood associations.

Call it a resurrection. Call it a Houdini act. Whatever the case, it worked. And was quite a recovery from the Annus Horribilis of 2016, which produced a series of unfortunate events that caught the world’s attention and took years to repair. That May 23, the commission assessment team issued a report enumerating deficiencies with evidence, organization, record keeping, training, and procedures -- some under assistant chief Juriga’s direct watch -- costing the department its accreditation. That very day, police chief Leonard Burgess resigned after two years to “spend time with family.” City manager Larry Spring replaced him with assistant chief Gary Eugene, passing over Juriga.

On July 18, the shooting of behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey made the department a global poster child for incompetence and worse, and recriminations, lawsuits, and bizarre internal investigations followed, costing Eugene his job after barely a year.

Yet at the same time, the department quickly went to work to address the problems highlighted by both the loss of accreditation and the shooting -- creating systems, accountability, de-escalation training, body cameras for officers, programs for dealing with people with mental disabilities, and more. It took three years, but when the accreditation assessment teams arrived in October 2019, the police were locked and loaded.

For Juriga, that loss of accreditation was a bitter lesson.

“It was frustrating. It was embarrassing. It was eye opening,” he says. “I did take it personally. The men and women of the department are family.” Juriga, a 26-year veteran of the force, is the son of a former North Miami assistant police chief and nephew of two other senior police officers.

“It was also unifying,” Juriga notes. “All our supervisors and command members not only had an understanding of accreditation, but complete involvement in it. Our aim was to strengthen the culture through respect and professionalism, not only outside, but inside as well. Our training has been key. The word de-escalation is not just a word, but a practice. Rather than escalating a situation, you calm things down. When you calm things down, it actually calms the officers down.”

The new report complimented the city on its record keeping, efficiency, rigorous documentation, accounting, and much more -- absolving it of the very sins that cost the city its accreditation.

“The North Miami Police Department is changing things for the better,” the report states. “It has created a unifying-based culture throughout the department, and has two exemplary programs; one is community engagement through public/private partnerships to enhance its youth outreach, and the other is its investment in its personnel’s overall health by nurturing their emotional, physical, and mental wellness.”

Of all the 30 or so municipalities up for review, North Miami showed up in St. Augustine with a group resembling a strategic cross section of the community, including interim city manager Arthur H. “Duke” Sorey III, Mayor Philippe Bien-Aime, former Mayor Andre Pierre, and community stalwarts such as Michael McDearmaid and Bob Pechon, buttressed by the written testimonials.

Former Mayor Pierre told the BT: “I think we have one of the finest chiefs not only in North Miami, but around the country.”

The department is budgeted for 154 sworn officers, up about 30 from four years ago, and 38 civilian employees. Eight new officers were sworn in during February, and the department is still roughly 20 officers short. The department has faced high-ranking retirements and transfers in recent years, including many of Juriga’s old allies in the department.

In recent public events, assistant chief Angel Rivera has taken on greater prominence and recently led a well-received active shooter drill and exercise for members of the community in the city council chamber. The community will see more of Rivera, who has long been close to Juriga, who says he is staying put.

Over the past four years, the department has proved vexing to cover, sometimes suggesting a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Juriga is hard working, available, and well liked. He has demonstrated concern for residents’ welfare, as shown in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma in September 2017. He has a particular knack with the young, as he started his career in the 1980s as a coach with the Parks and Recreation Department, then the city’s pride. He was a mentor of Arthur H. “Duke” Sorey III, the son of the city’s first African-American council member.

Yet the Kinsey shooting revealed a culture of factions, infighting, and ill will. The city’s impulsive and persistent targeting of Maj. Emile Hollant, the supervising officer at the time of the shooting -- twice deemed blameless by law enforcement agencies -- was particularly disturbing, as was the gang-up on Chief Gary Eugene, abetted by the Police Benevolent Association, which also advocated for Juriga’s hiring. Hollant and Eugene sued the city, which settled.

So, too, were the series of reverse discrimination suits by white police officers, particularly Juriga, who overheard then city manager Aleem Ghany call him a “redneck,” filed an EEOC complaint, and got a settlement of just under $25,000 and free medical insurance till age 65, engineered by Sorey, then the interim city manager. Some of us have been called worse and received less.

That said, it is indisputable that Juriga can lay claim to success and goodwill across broad community lines after two years as chief preceded by eight months as interim. As the shooting and accreditation troubles recede, the police department’s procedures have improved, and it appears that Mr. Hyde is in retreat, with Dr. Jekyll clearly winning the day. That is good news for all, and may things only keep getting better.

 

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