With little discussion and no formal admission of wrongdoing, Miami city commissioners on Thursday approved City Hall's share of the largest legal settlement to date stemming from police conduct during 2003's Free Trade Area of the Americas summit.
The half-million-plus payout, to be funded by Miami, Miami-Dade County, Hialeah and the Broward Sheriff's Office, will be split among 21 FTAA protesters who alleged that heavy-handed police violated their constitutional rights.
''We got arrested for no good reason,'' one plaintiff, Paul Bame, 48, told The Miami Herald on Thursday. On Nov. 15, 2003, police handcuffed Bame and charged him with ''obstructing a sidewalk'' -- a charge later dropped.
During the FTAA summit, fear of widespread riots by opponents of the trade pact prompted an unprecedented number of police officers -- more than 2,500 -- to patrol the streets of downtown Miami.
Downtown businesses survived the event with barely a scratch. Two weeks later, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce presented Miami Police Chief John Timoney a plaque for his ``amazingly professional work.''
But the euphoria quickly faded, replaced by widespread allegations of police using overly aggressive, unconstitutional crowd-control tactics. In addition to Bame's lawsuit, several other major suits related to police activity during the FTAA summit are still moving through the courts -- and the deadline for claims to be filed has not yet expired.
Bame, a Fort Collins, Colo., resident who came to Miami to speak out against the FTAA as well as file news reports for a Colorado radio station, said he and others were targeted solely because of their political beliefs.
''The officers on the street asked why we were there and did we oppose the FTAA,'' Bame said. ``We said yes, even though we thought it was an inappropriate question.''
Soon after, Bame said, he was being booked at the police station. ''It was a pretty unpleasant experience,'' he said. Of the total $561,000 settlement, the city of Miami's share is $166,000, which city commissioners approved unanimously.
''Absolutely, our position is our police department acted at all times appropriately,'' City Attorney Jorge Fernandez told commissioners Thursday. Nevertheless, Fernandez said the deal was in the city's best interest.
Commissioners then approved it without comment.
Chief Timoney, the mastermind of Miami's multiagency FTAA police effort, minimized the settlement's importance in an interview outside commission chambers.
''Strictly a business decision,'' Timoney said. Miami had a good legal case against the 21 protesters, the chief said, but the expense of drawn-out court battles made settling the preferred option.
Regarding the police response during the FTAA, Timoney said: ``When you have big operations like that it can never be perfect . . . but I think we did as good a job as you could possibly do.''
Miami-Dade County has yet to vote on its proposed $352,500 contribution to the settlement. County spokeswoman Suzy Trutie said county leaders will review the matter in the coming weeks.
Before the Miami commissioners' vote Thursday, Hialeah already had chipped in $39,500; the Broward Sheriff's Office, $3,000.
The settlement follows a $180,000 FTAA payout that Miami agreed to last year -- money that went to Carl Kesser, an independent Miami filmmaker who was seriously injured when police fired a ''less-lethal'' beanbag at his head. The beanbag lodged under Kesser's skin near the eye, causing nerve damage and partial paralysis on one side of his face.
Also last year: Broward Sheriff's Maj. John Brooks apologized for derogatory comments he and other officers made in a police training video after the summit.
The tape shows Brooks and other deputies praising themselves over shooting nonlethal rubber projectiles at protesters. They congratulated one another for shooting Elizabeth Ritter, a middle-aged Coral Gables attorney, five times as she cowered in the street.
© 2007 Miami Herald