By Curt Anderson
MIAMI — The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday it will investigate whether Miami police violated the civil rights of seven African-American suspects fatally shot by officers in an eight-month span.
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, and Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said the probe will focus on whether there was a "pattern or practice" within the Miami Police Department that led to violations of constitutional rights. The investigation is not criminal in nature.
The shootings in inner-city Miami, from July 2010 to February 2011, sparked outrage in the African-American community and led to protests at City Hall. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, demanded a federal investigation.
The former police chief, Miguel Exposito, defended the shootings as justified and said they resulted from confrontations caused by more aggressive police tactics in high-crime areas plagued by gangs.
Exposito was fired in September for disobeying orders from the city manager. The current interim chief, Manuel Orosa, welcomes the investigation and has already ordered a top-to-bottom review of all practices within the department, said his spokesman, Maj. Delrish Moss.
"The more people looking at what we do, the more it makes us more capable of serving the community," Moss said.
The question of whether the shootings were justified has been under review for months by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.
Earlier this decade, the Justice Department launched a broad investigation into Miami Police Department tactics after several controversial police shootings. But that probe in 2003 reached no conclusion about whether department policies caused civil rights violations.
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press