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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Keith Wilson knows the importance of paper. In 1989, two years after he left the Miami police force to work for his father's church, Wilson was falsely arrested and thrown in jail. His written complaint about the arrest led the county's Independent Review Panel (IRP) to conclude that Metro-Dade police officer Tammy Haywood had acted improperly. The 1991 decision stands as the first and only occasion on which the six-member monitoring agency, created by the county commission in 1980 to investigate alleged abuses of power, has upheld a citizen's false-arrest allegation.
That experience taught Keith Wilson to respect the power of the public record. Within a short time he would learn to fear attempts to manipulate it. In late 1991 Metro-Dade police questioned him in connection with an alleged death threat against Jimmie Brown, who at that time was a police major in charge of Metro's Northside District Station. While he denied any knowledge of the threat, Wilson wished to go on record regarding a feud he was having with Brown: The Metro cop was suing him for libel. Not long afterward, when Wilson discovered that his statement had vanished from Metro police files, he addressed another complaint to the Independent Review Panel A and last month he made IRP history once again. On March 22 the panel reported that Jimmie Brown, now a police chief in charge of Metro-Dade's South Operations Division, had probably violated Florida public records laws when he ordered the destruction of Keith Wilson's statement. According to the panel's executive director, this is the first time the IRP has found a police officer in violation of public records statutes.
Wilson has not always employed his documentary warfare defensively. In several memoranda, the former police officer has attacked Brown, Haywood, and several other Metro-Dade officers, accusing them of various heinous wrongs. Wesley Pomeroy, the IRP's executive director, says Wilson has an unpleasant tendency to heighten tension and generate too much paperwork. But Pomeroy stresses that his panel must carefully review statements made by any gadfly with such an impressive record of bites. "This man's allegations of conspiracy are way off the wall," says Pomeroy, a former police chief who works full-time administering the IRP (he is not a voting member of the panel). "But he has been absolutely right about a couple of crucial points."
Whether Wilson has won vindication is another matter. Neither Haywood nor Brown was disciplined by the Metro-Dade Police Department as a result of the IRP's rulings; the panel of unpaid private citizens operates in a strictly advisory capacity, wielding no power of enforcement. Wilson, who served on a 1989 task force that recommended boosting the IRP's power, says his victories merely underscore the need for more checks on police. "What has happened to me is part of a much bigger problem," he avows. "I'm just one victim."
He earned that title on the evening of August 21, 1989, after a day of supervising maintenance work at his father's Liberty City Pentecostal church. As Wilson later told police investigators and the IRP, when he stopped at a Liberty City boarding house to pay some of his workers, he carried his twelve-gauge shotgun inside instead of leaving it in his truck, where it might be stolen. The gun was in a case, unloaded. On his way out, Wilson was met by four Metro-Dade police officers, who had received an anonymous tip that a man was threatening people with a shotgun. One of the cops, Tammy Haywood, patted down Wilson, handcuffed him, and placed him in a police car.
Haywood's report states that Wilson created a disturbance as neighbors gathered around; witnesses who were later interviewed by both the police and the IRP disagreed, saying the suspect cooperated. Wilson himself says he believed the officers would release him after discovering he had done nothing wrong. Haywood also reported that Wilson had provided false information A he told her his birthdate was January 1, 1956, when in fact it is January 2 A and that the falsehood constituted resisting arrest. (Wilson said later that he had simply made a misstatement.) A judge dismissed charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but Wilson had already spent what he describes as a harrowing thirteen hours in jail, surrounded by criminals, one of whom he had arrested years earlier in a crack sting. Further, while Wilson was behind bars, one of his workers broke into his truck and his home; the man was subsequently arrested.
Only days after being freed, the outraged citizen filed his IRP complaint. The investigation took nearly a year and a half, but in February 1991 the panel unanimously concluded that "there was no legal basis for arresting Mr. Wilson." The IRP found no evidence supporting Wilson's contention that Haywood, a white officer, targeted him because he was black. The Dade State Attorney's Office declined to press criminal charges against Haywood, explaining in a memo that the case boiled down to her word, which was backed by her fellow officers, against Wilson's, corroborated by about five eyewitnesses.
At the time of the IRP ruling, Wilson was executive director of the African Community Council, a church-based community group with about 40 members. In a memorandum addressed to several news organizations, he took the opportunity to lambaste Haywood in print. The IRP, he wrote, had found the officer guilty of "falsifying police reports, lying, abuse of police authority, covering up facts in a police investigation, [and] official misconduct." One typo-laden passage of Wilson's screed warned readers: "It is possible that officer Haywood could shoot and kill your son, daughter, or even you and then lie about the circumstances of the incident so as to make her actions appear to be correct. To randomly snatch you up and place you under arrest or kill you. However, you must be black or a minority to qualify for...racist, illegal and ungodly treatment."
In other memoranda, Wilson took aim at Haywood's commander, Jimmie Brown, for what he viewed as an equally serious offense. That same spring Wilson had attended a meeting of black leaders at which Brown spoke. At one point during his speech, Wilson wrote, Brown had stated: "What I would do if a brother was selling drugs to another brother, I would blow his brains out." According to Wilson's letter, the Metro cop had also encouraged fellow blacks to stop burning down their own neighborhoods and instead "go over to the airport district and throw Molotov cocktails."
Wilson also availed himself of his right to file a complaint about Brown with the IRP. This one was thrown out. The panel noted that three witnesses who had attended the meeting "stated that the comments attributed to Chief Brown were taken out of context and did not reflect his message."
On August 15, 1991, in separate court actions, Brown and Haywood sued Wilson for libel, identifying his memos as false and defamatory documents distributed with the intent of damaging their reputations. Acting as his own counsel, Wilson spent months battling attorney Michael Palahach, who represented both officers. At one point Wilson named Palahach in a bar complaint, alleging "unprofessional and unscrupulous intimidation tactics." Though the bar complaint was unsuccessful, Wilson didn't lose the lawsuits. Both plaintiffs dropped their complaints a year after filing. (Neither Brown nor his attorney, Palahach, will comment about the suit or Wilson's allegations. Haywood could not be located for comment; Metro-Dade's police personnel office says she no longer works for the force.)
The real drama, however, took place outside the courtroom. On the morning of December 18, 1991, two Metro-Dade detectives knocked on the door of Wilson's Liberty City home, waking him, as he recalls, from a deep sleep. One of the officers, Judith Gable, asked him point-blank if he had ever threatened Jimmie Brown's life. To this day Wilson can barely contain his anger when he speaks about the interrogation. "I told them that as a former police officer I would never make such a threat," he says. "I also told them that I didn't believe anyone had made such a threat. I knew I was being set up."
Wilson still contends that Brown concocted the threat in order to use it in his libel suit. As Gable later acknowledged to internal affairs investigators, Wilson expressed concern that his reputation was being maligned. But she denied Wilson's contention that she promised to include his suspicions in her report.
Of course, Wilson knew the power of the public record. Later that day he repeated his accusations several times over the telephone A to two Metro-Dade police officers and to a records specialist. The latter, Connie Alvarez, wrote up a supplemental report that included Wilson's statement, which she forwarded to the detective division. A week later, when Wilson requested a copy of the report under Florida's Sunshine Law, he was told no such document existed.
Police investigators later found that Chief Jimmie Brown had ordered an assistant to destroy the report. Brown's explanation: At the time he thought the document duplicated information in Gable's report. But he admitted he could not be sure of that, because he had not actually read Gable's report.
Wilson still believes Brown and several of his subordinates were trying to set him up, and alleges that they intentionally destroyed the one document that shed light on their "vile conspiracy." Cloak-and-dagger theatrics notwithstanding, IRP files and police investigative records indicate that the death threat seemed improbable from the start. Metro-Dade police, for example, never questioned the fact that the tip about the threat came from a man named Nelson Perry, a private investigator who was working for Brown's attorney. An ex-cop, Perry himself claimed that the information had come to him third-hand. The FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not see fit to investigate, but Metro-Dade decided to question Wilson about it anyway.
The IRP's Wesley Pomeroy says he isn't interested in any of Wilson's conspiracy theories; they merely serve to obfuscate the real issue. "I believe it was inappropriate and bad judgment on the part of Brown to have anything to do with [Wilson's] complaint against him," says Pomeroy, measuring his words carefully. "I also believe that although the panel doesn't get involved in disciplining officers, there should have been discipline in this case. Someone in Brown's position should have known better than to destroy a public document. He made a mistake in violation of a state statute and he received no punishment whatsoever. The perception left is that the senior command staff are not accountable for their mistakes."
Under Florida law, unintentional destruction of a public document is a noncriminal infraction punishable by a fine not exceeding $500. Intentional destruction of such a document is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1000.
Keith Wilson maintains that lack of police accountability is not a perception but a fact. And he promises to remain vigilant. "When [detective Gable] was asking me about the death threat, she kept telling me not to worry, that it was just routine," Wilson says. "My position was that any time a cop asks you if you've threatened a senior commander with death, you'd best worry. Turns out I was right. I don't ever want to be that right again.