May 10, 2021
Miami’s new police chief mulls the return of a controversial patrol vehicle pursuit tactic
 
 
By Charles Rabin and David Ovalle
 

As advertised, Miami’s new police chief isn’t averse to shaking things up. 

At the helm less than a month, he has discussed wresting control of police shooting investigations back from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and has relieved from duty, without explanation, two of the highest-ranking officers in the department.

But another issue that Art Acevedo has been dropping hints about returning to the department’s fold could be even more controversial: The chief is considering reintroducing a much-maligned set of police vehicle maneuvers that were done away with decades ago after too many innocent bystanders and cops were injured or killed.

Acevedo said if done properly, he’s a fan of Precision Immobilization Techniques, actions during a vehicle pursuit that include the tapping of a suspect’s vehicle’s rear end with the front end of a patrol car to get it to spin out and come to a stop. 

“I grew up in California and L.A. is the capital of police pursuits. And Houston is probably the bi-capital. A blanket policy of not to pursue is chaos. It’s an invitation to gangbangers to run,” Acevedo told the Miami Herald. If people are getting injured, “it tells me [officers] are not following policy and are doing it at too high a speed.”

The chief said that although he has discussed bringing back PIT maneuvers with some staff, it’s not yet on his “to do” list. Still, several sources said he’s broached the subject with police sergeants over the past few weeks. 

Miami and most other South Florida policing agencies dropped PIT maneuvers — and most vehicle chases — for the most part in the mid-1990s. The maneuvers were determined to be far too dangerous not only for police and suspects, but for the general public as well — especially so because many of the incidents were precipitated by minor traffic infractions. 

“You could hit an innocent person waiting at a bus stop,” said former Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa. “It’s good for open areas. But here in the city it’s useless because someone is going to get hurt.”

Acevedo maintains the action is safe, provided officers do it properly and at slow speeds of about 35 miles per hour or less. 

Bringing back PIT isn’t the only controversial issue Acevedo is pondering. The new chief was brought from Houston earlier this month as something of a change agent who has harped on and promised accountability from his officers.

Last week he relieved from duty two of his highest-ranking officers, a rare move against a senior staffer and one that hasn’t happened since 2005, when a commander was punished for soliciting an undercover cop posing as a prostitute. Deputy Police Chief Ron Papier and his wife, Little Havana Commander Nerly Papier, were relieved of duty without explanation. Being relieved of duty is often a prerequisite for a firing. 

The chief has also mentioned several times his preference for reclaiming police-shooting investigations from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Acevedo said he’s concerned the state agency often takes too long to report findings. Miami, like most other local police departments, agreed to relinquish those investigations less than a decade ago after pressure from the public and elected leaders about the importance of avoiding even a perceived conflict of interest.

A change in policy could get blow-back, especially because police reform is such a hot-button issue across the country. 

In the past, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has supported FDLE’s investigations of police shootings. 

“I believe that anything increasing the transparency and timeliness of these important investigations, which also boosts the public’s confidence in our police, should be pursued as a goal,” she told the Herald in 2014, shortly before Miami-Dade police handed over duties of investigating the shootings to the FDLE.

Her office declined to comment on Thursday.

Alex Piquero, a criminologist and author of a number of studies on policing, who heads the sociology department at the University of Miami, also isn’t sure returning shooting investigations to Miami is such a good idea.

“The more eyes and the more it’s at arms length, the better,” he said. 

But Acevedo, who has refused comment on relieving the Papiers of duty, and who has been reserved in discussing taking back police-shooting investigations, spoke openly this week about the PIT maneuvers that his officers used while he ran law enforcement agencies in California and Houston. 

The chief said during his 35-year policing career he can only recall one chase ending poorly, with an officer being shot and injured after pulling up next to another vehicle.

“It’s the only one that didn’t go the way we were trained,” he said. 

While the PIT maneuver is generally not used in South Florida, an ongoing lawsuit claims it was employed in a recent death by police in Hialeah.

Lester Machado died after Hialeah officers fired 128 rounds at his car after it crashed on Oct. 1, 2017. A Hialeah cop, the department claimed, tried pulling over Machado for a broken tail light. He initially stopped, then took off and led officers on a dramatic high-speed chase.

Video surveillance, later cited in a federal lawsuit against Hialeah, showed what appeared to be a patrol car attempting to make contact with Machado’s car from behind once, then finally connecting on a second attempt, causing it to rotate around and crash into a concrete Metrorail pillar. Police officers stopped, exited their cars and almost immediately opened fire.

The Hialeah lieutenant, Tony Luis, claimed in a deposition that the contact was unintentional. Another Hialeah officer involved in the chase told civil lawyers in a deposition that she believed it was indeed a PIT maneuver.

Lawyers for Machado’s family believe the maneuver was intentional, and went against Hialeah police policy on car chases.

“I was trained in PIT maneuvers back in the ‘80s. They are difficult to train in. Moreover, they are inherently dangerous and in today’s world they are just too dangerous, especially in big cities,” said Rick Diaz, one of the Machado family lawyers and a former police officer. “Now, in rural highways they can be used. But even then with helicopters, K-9 units, police interceptor engine vehicles, multi-agency BOLO and pursuit capabilities and camera readers, they just present far too much risk for officers and civilians and too much liability for police agencies.”

Last summer, at the height of social-justice protests, the Washington Post ran a story on the PIT tactic that found that at least 30 people had been killed and hundreds injured in crashes when the technique was used. The study, which went back five years, found that 18 of those deaths involved chases for minor violations like speeding.

According to the Post, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office was involved in 200 pursuits in 2019 with almost a third of them ending after a PIT maneuver was used. One man was killed, an 84-year-old Navy vet who had been kidnapped after the SUV he was in crashed into a cement telephone pole and split in half. The study also found that there had been 34 deaths during 1,500 incidents involving PIT with the Georgia State Patrol since 1997. 

Miami Commission Chairman Ken Russell said reinstating PIT would require some studying.

“We have a much more urban structure [than Los Angeles] and a no-chase policy,” said the commission chair. “But the police chief vets the police and policy. The city commission can’t tell the police chief how to do his job. But I’m open for discussion.”