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Justice Department opens probe of Miami police

MIAMI (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice said on Thursday it has opened an investigation into allegations of excessive use of deadly force by Miami police after a spate of police killings of young men.

The probe will examine whether there is a "pattern or practice" of unlawful conduct by police officers, said Thomas Perez, a U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights.

The civil investigation follows the fatal shootings of eight men over the last 16 months, including seven African-Americans in incidents that heightened tensions in the city's black community.

The Miami investigation brings to 18 the number of police departments nationwide under review including Puerto Rico, Newark, New Jersey, Seattle, New Orleans and Maricopa county, Arizona. The Justice Department has release findings highly critical of New Orleans and Puerto Rico practices.

The seven killings in Miami from July 2010 through February 2011 occurred in and around predominately African-American neighborhoods and triggered calls by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union for an investigation into police conduct.

"Community policing is critical in order to ensure that the people of Miami can trust their police department," Perez said.

Perez said the investigation was in part prompted by worrying statistical evidence illustrating Miami police involvement in fatal shootings.

He said in 2010 that Miami police had one fatal shooting for every 220 officers, compared to one fatal shooting for every 4,313 police officers by the New York Police Department, the United States' largest police force.

"We are not looking at individual accountability," Perez said. "Rather, we are looking more broadly at whether there are systemic deficiencies that result in patterns or practices of unlawful conduct."

(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Greg McCune)