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A group of Surfside police officers say they have been ordered to alter police reports, destroy evidence, downplay violent incidents, and, in some cases, to overlook criminal activity -- all in an effort to maintain the town's image as a peaceful hamlet by the sea. "They don't want a police department," says one of the officers, who, like his colleagues, consented to be interviewed for this story only if he was not quoted by name. "They don't want us to do anything."
The accusations have prompted the Dade State Attorney's Office to open a criminal investigation into the department, which serves the small, 5000-inhabitant beachside community just south of Bal Harbour. The Police Benevolent Association (PBA) has begun its own inquiry, as well. "We are currently in the process of affording the town the opportunity to respond to the information we've received," says Teri Guttman Valdes, a PBA attorney. "We're deeply concerned if even part of what the officers told us is true." While she declines to say exactly how many, Valdes asserts that a number of Surfside's 23 officers have provided her with evidence to back their allegations. "I haven't been involved in a case where this many officers came forward," she adds. "And it's very much corroborated."
Among the officers' claims: In an attempt to downplay the drug problem in the beachside community, they have been ordered to falsify records and destroy evidence. One officer says that after he'd arrested a woman for possession of marijuana, one of his supervisors told him to rewrite the report and drop all references to the illegal substance. "[He said], 'You're not a chemist,'" the officer says. The supervisor took the marijuana that had been seized, he recalls, and threw it in a trash can.
Other officers complain that they are regularly told to "underreport" certain violent crimes. After a tourist was beaten and robbed in her hotel room, the officer says he was instructed not to classify the matter as a home invasion and robbery, but as a simple burglary and grand theft. Another allegation: A wife who attacked her husband with a pair of scissors was initially charged with aggravated assault, but the charge was lowered to simple battery at the request of supervisors. In a third alleged instance, a car owner said a cellular phone worth $950 was stolen from his vehicle, but supervisors later ordered the officer to value the phone at $299 so it would appear on department records as a petty theft.
The faction alleges that an employee was fired for attempting to stand up to supervisors. They also describe lax practices regarding the department's property room, claiming some officers have taken home items for their personal use.
Surfside Police Chief Terrill Williamson denies any wrongdoing on the part of his department, blaming the allegations on a group of disgruntled officers. According to Williamson, the problem can be traced back to an incident this past month involving one of his officers, seventeen-year veteran Michael Marchese. "This officer is a good officer, he makes good arrests," says Williamson. "But he only really likes to do one thing: traffic stops. We have other priorities, though."
Williamson says that in early March, Marchese's supervisor Sgt. James Garrett ordered the officer to patrol the town's residential neighborhoods, owing to an increase in burglaries in the area. According to Williamson, Marchese refused and continued writing traffic tickets instead. "He disobeyed an order," asserts the chief.
Williamson says the matter escalated into a series of arguments pitting him and Garrett against Marchese and his colleagues who work the 3:00 to 11:00 p.m. shift; finally, a frustrated Garrett reportedly told Marchese that he was to make no traffic stops whatsoever -- not even suspected drunken drivers -- but was to radio for assistance instead. "We have all the right in the world to tell officers what to do," Williamson declares.
Marchese wrote a memo to Williamson on March 23, condemning the order and arguing that it placed the town in jeopardy, particularly as it related to drunken drivers. "My police powers and sworn duties have been restricted and in the case of traffic infractions, has been totally illiminated," the grammatically tortured missive reads. "Sir, I will comply to Orders, I feel the rest of your officers will comply as well to this direct order. I will ignore my oath of office, under diress, because of this direct order and noncompliance would mean insubordination."
Marchese's professed concern is a red herring, Williamson counters. Paging through a computer printout, the chief asserts that Marchese has made 457 traffic stops over the past two years. In only two instances, he says, did Marchese make a DUI arrest, and in only three other cases did he write a ticket for so much as a moving violation. The rest of the stops resulted in the driver being cited for minor offenses such as driving with a suspended license, expired tags, or defective equipment.
Williamson argues that keeping residential neighborhoods safe from burglars is more important than writing tickets for broken taillights and cracked windshields A unless, perhaps, you happen to be the officer who writes the tickets. Insignificant traffic stops translate into extra money in overtime, the chief points out, because officers are paid extra for their required appearances in traffic court.