Miami averted a riot - but at what cost?

It might go down as the Miami riot that never occurred. But the massive use of police force, while apparently successful, was a high-risk policy. And it did little to defuse the kind of police-community relations issues that have led to violence in Miami before. The latest lessons from Miami can be useful in many cities.

Miami police and community leaders worked hard in advance to avoid a riot stemming from the verdict in the trial of an Hispanic Miami police officer who had shot and killed a black youth. So by the time the jury - which included no blacks - rendered its quick not-guilty verdict March 15, the city was ready.

The two nights of scattered violence that followed in black neighborhoods were minimal compared to the explosion of fury and violence in 1980 in which 18 persons were killed after an all-white jury acquitted several Miami police officers in the death of a black man.

In 1980, police and members of the Florida National Guard were less prepared. But this time police moved in and out of the troubled neighborhoods frequently and stationed more officers at key intersections inside the areas.

Community and black leaders were especially active this time in walking the streets and trying to get the message across to young blacks to not react violently to a not-guilty verdict.

On the surface, it looks as if the talking and the massive use of police force worked.

One police tactic was especially effective. Six or more police cars would suddenly move into a neighborhood, carrying officers with shotguns or long night sticks and wearing helmets with protective masks. It had the desired effect: intimidating would-be and actual troublemakers.

There was praise from some blacks about the quick police response. But this writer's interviews with blacks in a neighborhood where one of the roving groups of police cars was swooping in to arrest several rock throwers revealed anger, even rage, among bystanders at what they viewed as an overuse of force. And in another neighborhood, several black community leaders strongly criticized the intimidating use of police force for stirring up anger. That anger might have spilled over into even more violence, they said.

At the same time other blacks praised the police for not overreacting. And it was not an easy job for the police. Some officers this writer saw were tired and had been on duty many hours, sometimes in tense situations. Others were chatting in a friendly way with children and adults. No deaths were reported during the two nights of disturbances.

Where they have been getting out of their cars and talking to local residents of Miami's black neighborhoods, city and county police - white or black - have gained new respect from the residents. And both sides may be less likely to overreact in emergencies if they know each other. The officer in the most recent killing of the black youth apparently was not familiar with the area or the people.

The situation should not simply be one of white or Hispanic police officers vs. blacks. At least potentially, it should be one of police and the community working together.

But another underlying criminal-justice issue is the repeated use of the preemptory and unexplained challenges to prevent blacks from sitting on juries in cases involving black victims. It's a practice that leaves many blacks feeling that the jury system is not fair. Until that is corrected and until police get to know the policed better, the potential for more violence and the high-risk use of massive police force will continue.

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