March 22, 2023
Who holds Miami police accountable? This Army reservist is stepping up to the job
By Joey Flechas

Rodney Jacobs says he likes to think of his job as helping Miamians figure out where to direct their anger when they have an issue with the police.

As the new director of the city’s civilian police oversight agency, the Civilian Investigative Panel, the 33-year-old Army reservist said he wants to make sure his department is a destination for people to report police misconduct. Jacobs, a five-year veteran of the CIP, now runs a department created more than 20 years ago to investigate complaints. Voters approved the measure after a corruption scandal and a string of fatal police shootings of black men.

Part of widening the understanding of his department’s role, Jacobs told the Miami Herald in a recent interview, is clearly communicating where people should direct their dissatisfaction with cops.

“If you’re upset about police culture, be very much upset at the police chief. The police chief is the one who sets that culture and ensures that that level of leadership is carried among their senior level staff,” Jacobs said. “That’s the person you need to be knocking on that door, maybe asking for a replacement. If you’re upset that a police officer is relieved of duty with pay, you need to be mad at your local elected leaders, because they have created a collective bargaining agreement that ensures that that happens, right?”

The CIP’s eight-person staff with a $1.3 million budget uses body camera footage, testimony from witnesses and sometimes statements from police and internal affairs reports to investigate complaints filed against cops. A 13-member board meets monthly to review the staff’s findings and make recommendations to the police chief on how to handle misconduct.

That board recommended Jacobs be appointed as director in October, and the City Commission approved his promotion in November. His annual salary is $150,000, and he’s receiving $600 monthly for a car and cell phone.

Jacobs said he wants the department to expand its analysis of police data and research of best practices in policing. The CIP’s advocacy has led the department to retain footage from body-worn cameras for longer and improve policies for strip searching to respect gender identities. He said the strip search change was coordinated with help from community LGBTQ advocates, an example of the CIP’s fostering relationships between residents and police.

A self-described military brat whose father served 30 years in the Army, Jacobs was born in Philadelphia and lived there for almost 10 years before moving around frequently. He graduated from Seminole High School in the Tampa Bay area, and Hiram College near Cleveland. After completing a law degree from the University of Dayton, he joined the Army Reserve and was commissioned as an intelligence officer. He’s currently a captain serving as commander of a company based in Sanford.

Jacobs moved to Miami to be with his now wife, Ramona, and applied to the University of Miami to finish a master’s in public administration and also pursue a second postgraduate degree in public health. He started looking for jobs while he waited for his acceptance, and after a mutual friend connected him with the then-director of the CIP, Cristina Beamud, he interviewed in late 2016. He joined the CIP in March 2017 as assistant director, and three years later, he completed both of his master’s degrees.

“He’s a quick learner,” said Beamud, who retired in the summer. “I hired him right out of law school, and he was able to pick up all the nuances involved with oversight work very quickly.”

Early on, he helped manage the relationship between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice, which was monitoring Miami police after another string of deadly police shootings that killed several Black men in 2010 and 2011. Jacobs assisted the citizen advisory board tasked with overseeing the department’s agreement with the DOJ to institute reforms. The arrangement ended in February 2021.

The city’s oversight panel has produced reports that highlight policing problems, including the misuse of body-worn cameras and mismanagement of the department’s off-duty program. A review this year found that police are twice as likely to be cleared of misconduct allegations while wearing body cameras, but more cops should be wearing them and turning their microphones on.

Jacobs said he wants to produce more data-driven reports that can help guide the department’s policy decisions.

“I really feel as though we can do a lot more with issue-based reporting from our department, whether it relates to homelessness and how that interacts with policing, or interactions with medical workers and how that impacts policing,” he said.

He said it’s worth understanding where police interact with other local institutions that serve citizens, such as homeless services and local hospitals. For example, if someone who has just encountered police comes into the emergency room with injuries, and it looks like excessive force may have been used, doctors and nurses could provide the injured person information on how to connect with the CIP.

“The first person that they’re going to talk to is that nurse, and that nurse is going to have a good understanding of what occurred, right? Because you don’t fall on both sides of your head,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs said after five years at the CIP, he thinks the Miami Police department is working to find a new identity. He said it would served the department well to focus on creating a better culture of community policing rather than infighting. He said the department’s greatest strength is that its leaders are well-intentioned, but that the reform has to happen transparently and with a willingness to consider new policies and approaches.

“Police departments tend to work in silos, to their detriment, not letting enough diverse thought in the room, and sometimes closing the the room entirely,” he said.

Married with one young son, Jacobs’ family lives in Miramar. He points to his wife, Ramona, as a stabilizing force when police oversight work frustrates him — she’s the one who reminds him that big change often happens in small steps. He said as a Christian, he also turns to his faith to help guide him. He attends services at Vous Church in Miami.

Jacobs has also stayed active in the military, serving in the Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command. Working in civil affairs, Jacobs and his fellow soldiers are trained to interact with civilians in other nations where the U.S. has a military presence. He said he considers his military work, particularly leading a company of about 100 soldiers, as some of the most valuable training he’s ever gotten.

“I would say I value my commissioning over my law degree,” he said. “It’s one of those places I went where I really found what like real leadership is, and, you know, not only leading by example, but leading with compassionate empathy.”