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Lessons in policing: one officer's experiences in Miami and Ferguson offer valuable insights

"One a day-to-day basis, a police officer exercises more power than the president of the United States," says officer Delrish Moss, who witnessed a series of anti-police riots in Miami in the 1980s, and served as police chief in Ferguson, Missouri after racial unrest rocked that city in 2014. With 36 years in uniform, Moss offers his insights on police reform. (Leer en español)
23 Jun 2020 – 04:38 PM EDT
Delrish Moss, greeting residents during his time as police chief in Ferguson, Missouri. Crédito: Phillip Jackson / Carnegie-Knight

MIAMI - Instead of retiring in 2016, veteran Miami police officer Delrish Moss made a bold decision to take on one of the toughest jobs going at the time.

In the wake of prolonged racial unrest on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of a black man by a white police officer, the deeply divided city was looking for a new police chief. Moss, who is African American, believed his firsthand experience in Miami could be of use.

“Some of the same things that were happening in Ferguson were the worst things that happened in Miami in the early 80s,” he told Univision in a lengthy interview, recalling three street riots sparked by notorious incidents involving police shootings by police and issues of excessive use force.

“Miami is still dealing with issues. We're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination … But there are a lot of things about Miami that informs how we look at things today,” he said.

Moss, 55, is now back in Miami after serving as police chief for two and half years in Ferguson, and he sees the lessons he learned playing out again across the country following the alleged murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25.

“In America right now, as far as we've come, there is still a very, very, very, deep divide, and politically, we're moving farther and farther apart,” he said.

“Watching a man suffer and die like he did on that video was just the last straw. I think no matter what city that happened in, the response is going to be very, very similar to the response that we're seeing.” - Delrish Moss.

But Moss remains hopeful, confident in the knowledge, drawn from his experience in Miami and Ferguson, that there are solutions – from banning choke holds and higher recruiting standards, to community policing and de-escalation training - that can be applied where there is the political will to implement badly needed reforms.

REAL AMERICA WITH JORGE RAMOS: 'After the Protest': See the interview with Delrish Moss on Facebook Watch

Miami Vice: Cleaning house

The grandson of Bahamian immigrants, Moss grew up in Overtown, an underprivileged neighborhood on the edge of downtown that was the scene of unrest in the 1980s.

“I was uniquely experienced because not only did I live in a neighborhood where riots took place as a kid, but just four years later, I was a police officer on the front lines of those same situations,” he said. “So, I'd seen it from both sides. And I thought that I was uniquely experienced to go to Ferguson and maybe offer some help,” he added.

As a young boy he says he was stopped by the police, even called the N-word. “Those are actually things that drew me to becoming a police officer because I saw I thought if this is the best service that we're getting, then I need to join and provide better service. As my grandmother always says, you can't clean the house if you're not in it,” he said.

When he joined the Miami Police Department in 1984, it was just coming off the heels of riots in 1980 riots and the 1982 riots. He joined just in time for another uprising in 1984.

At the time, Miami was the poster child for bad policing. Entry standards had been lowered to enlarge the force and as a result a series scandals involving dirty cops accused of racketeering, drug rip-offs and murder. The city was awash in cocaine and a flood of immigrants from Cuba and Central America, some of whom turned to crime.

The city’s lawless image was highlighted in the popular Miami Vice TV series and Time magazine ran a famous cover article proclaiming the city as ‘Paradise Lost’ because crime was so rampant.

“Miami was really one of the only cities in the nation that within a decade had seen three major uprisings as a result of race relations and police response." - Delrish Moss.

Moss was part of a turnaround as the city learned how to deal with street unrest. “It had gone from a heavy boots on the ground kind of response to starting to become a more community relations-oriented type of response,” he said.

A commission examined the early police response and the backlash it caused, finding that “the black community experienced isolation and subjugation” across the social and political spectrum. “So, the challenge at that point was to start to try to revitalize these areas from an economic perspective and also trying to change the direction of how policing responded to these things,” said Moss.

Community policing

Miami began by changing its police culture, with more minority recruiting, the formation of citizen advisory committees, as well as de-escalation tactics and proper “use of force” training for officers.

I think the 1982 and 1984 situations actually taught me a lot of lessons that they have they draw from today with regard to how we respond to protest, how we respond to civil unrest also, but also how we police our neighborhoods” said Moss.

“Miami created a program that was kind of the forefront of a lot of things that we're seeing now. They created something called ‘community involvement specialists,’ people who go into neighborhoods and work with neighbors to start to figure out some of the things that neighborhood actually needs, so that we can better address it from a police perspective, also from a social services perspective. Those relationships pay dividends when things go wrong,” he said.

By the time Moss left Miami in 2016 he was running the community relations section, as well as public affairs, making him one of the highest profile figures in the city.
He also left the Miami police department confident that it has learned a lot of lessons “to correct some of the some of the demons of the past.”

Ferguson: "another planet"

The Ferguson application process was challenging, he recalled, involving a questionnaire that was several pages, and required essay answers. “In fact, it took me about five hours to complete,” he recalled.

Moss beat out 53 other finalists to win the job.

What he found in Ferguson reminded him of some of the old problem Miami had dealt with. The census put Ferguson’s black population at about 67 percent, while white residents constituted about 29 percent. But, out of more than 50 officers, there were only three black officers and three women on the force.

That highlighted what Moss, and other, say is one of the problems of policing in this country; police departments vary widely, with different cultures and different operating protocols. “There are 18,000 police departments, all with a very unique personality, all with different regional expectations,” he said.

“When I walked into Ferguson, they were looking at me like I was from some other planet. And things I was finding there was like this harkens back to almost 30 to 40 years ago. I can't believe we're still doing some of these things,” he said.

In Ferguson, the civil unrest was sparked by the fatal shooting in 2014 of an unarmed black man, 18-year-old Michael Brown, by a white police officer. That touched off almost 100 days of civil unrest and protests, which caught national media attention. Brown's death has been cited as one of several police killings of African Americans protested by the Black Lives Matter.

Making it worse, the St Louis County prosecutors and the Justice Department found that the officer, Darren Wilson, acted in self-defense. However, they did uncover systematic problems of racial bias in the Ferguson Police Department. Police were issuing tickets more for revenue generation than for public safety and some of them were needlessly ending up in jail as a result.

“The most urgent priority when I arrived in Ferguson was establishing a relationship, especially with those who were disenfranchised or not necessarily friends of the Ferguson Police Department.” - Delrish Moss.

One of the first things he did was take his top command staff and knock on almost every single door in Ferguson to introduce themselves and ask people what their expectations of the police were. “That alone established dialogue that paid dividends later,” he said.

Other small things he did helped rebuild community relations. That included a community pool party and barbecue for local kids with officers. More than 500 people showed up. A basketball game challenge between Ferguson police officers and high school students was also organized to help raise funds for graduation. When the movie Black Panther came out, officers took kids to the movies. “They just had a good time, but it also prompted a deeper discussion about relationships, especially with regard to race,” he said.

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Three duties

Among the changes Moss made to police operations, he banned chokeholds, as well as creating civilian oversight of the police department and de-escalation training.
But three other specific policies were also crucial, and he says have especially relevance to the debate today.

Moss introduced a ‘duty to report’ if a police officer sees other officers behaving improperly, as well as a ‘duty to intervene’. “Time after time, we see police videos where there are several police officers standing around while one does something that shouldn't be done,” he said.

The last one was the 'duty of candor’. While police departments have policies that say that they must tell the truth in incident reports and court testimony, collusion between officers is a common problem.

Moss instituted a new policy that not telling the truth was automatic cause for firing. “There is no other remedy in Ferguson for the violation of the duty of candor or for not telling the truth. No other remedy but firing,” he said.

As a result, he said failure to tell the truth ended up being the most common cause of termination while he was chief of police.

Before he arrived, Moss said the average tenure of an officer on the Ferguson Police Department was about 25 five years. That quickly changed. Some left for natural reasons such as retirement. Some left voluntarily because they didn’t like the changes. “Some officers we had to invite to leave,” he said.

More diversity

A year and a half after he left Ferguson, Moss remains in close touch with people there. “There is not a day that goes by during the week where a citizen, or one of the police officers, or one of the elected officials gives me a call. Sometimes it's just to see how I'm doing, sometimes it’s to try to see if I'm interested in coming back. But oftentimes it's just to talk about things that are happening there now,” he said.

A lot has changed. By the time he left, the force was 50 percent African-American and the first Hispanic officer was hired. One third of the officers are now women.

The city leadership changed too. During the unrest there was only one African American on the city council. Now there are three. One of them, Ella Jones, was recently elected mayor, the first woman and the first African-American to hold the position.

She was sworn in last week.


After the Minneapolis shooting of George Floyd, demand for reform have intensified, perhaps as never before.

Many of those demands are summed in in the popular hashtag #EightCantWait. “Just about every single one of the8Can'tWait campaign demands came right out of the Ferguson agreement,” he said.

In fact, the young author of #8CantWait, 34-year-old, DeRay Mckesson, spent time on the ground in Ferguson and has credited his experience there with building his eight recommendations.

Moss is less enthusiastic about calls for defunding the police, saying there is a good deal of confusion over the phrase.

“In some cases, what they're talking about is not so much defunding as funding other things like the use of mental health professionals and other social services,” he said. “I don't think you should defund. I think you should fund those things better, but you should also fund your police department,” he added.

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Police unions also need to reexamine their role, and accept that bad officers need to be held more accountable.

Moss hopes that the Floyd case moves the needle nationally, in a way that previous police misconduct has failed to result in political action. He also hopes it serves as a lesson to the police.

“I always say that on a day to day basis, a police officer exercises more power than the president of the United States. He can, at the stroke of a pen, take away someone's freedom, change the course of their lives. But to whom much is given, much is required." - Delrish Moss.

“Police officers have the power, advertently or inadvertently, to spark some serious change. They can ignite a city. And in this case, we see they can ignite the world,” he added.

Systemic racism

Then, there is also the bigger issue of race, and allegations of systemic racism embedded in the fabric of the United States. That also needs to be addressed says Moss, and should no longer be hidden or denied.

“I think you'd have to live under a rock to believe that that is not the case. I think that we have a long way to go with regard to the original sin, which is the sin of slavery and all the vestiges that came after that with Jim Crow,” he said.

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“I think as an institution, we have a responsibility to police ourselves better. That's our challenge. But part of the challenge also has to fall within the hands of our elected officials,” he said.

“One of the things that we have to do as a nation is we have to examine ourselves a whole lot more and decide if prison and jail punishment is always the best remedy. We can't police away our problems, but our problems are a lot deeper than just the issues of police. That's usually what gets the attention. But that's not where the problem stops,” he said.

“I think the lessons that we've learned as police officers are vastly different than the lessons our political bodies have learned, if you will. More and more, we make things criminal or more and more we call upon the police to deal with situations that police chief for years have been saying that shouldn't be in our bailiwick." - Delrish Moss

He points to two specific issues, mental health and homelessness, in which police are often relied upon to respond. “There are so many other social services that really are better equipped to deal with that … I think that's been a big challenge that I've seen over my career where we're policing things that don't need to be policed,” he said.

“Homelessness is not a crime. And so, it's not something that police should have to respond to and deal with,” he said.

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