Sorry About That Chief

As Miami Beach officials attempt to appoint a permanent top cop, anonymous critics try to stir up the selection process

Tall, gray-haired, and well-spoken, 46-year-old Richard Barreto, the man seen by many as Miami Beach's next police chief, has the distinguished, imposing bearing of a veteran police officer. "He is a charismatic leader, a good speaker, a take-charge kind of guy who won respect through his mastery of skills," says Linda Veski, president of the Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police. "A clear majority of our membership backs Richard Barreto for police chief."

But Barreto, who rose through the ranks after joining the force as a patrolman at age 21, is the target of a wide-ranging smear campaign aimed at derailing his promotion from acting chief, the position he has held for the past year. (The department has been plagued by short-tenured chiefs ever since Phillip Huber was fired in 1993 after several complaints about racial and religious discrimination.) The centerpiece of the crusade, which appears to have been orchestrated by embittered current and former colleagues, is a series of anonymous handwritten letters listing inflammatory and unproven charges. Among them: that Barreto has an extensive criminal record, accepted payoffs, and contrived to cover up a sexual-harassment case. Copies of some letters have been sent to the mayor, commissioners, and city manager of Miami Beach, as well as to the press. One reads, in bold capital letters, "We cannot let a dishonest felon be our leader and role model."

Barreto, who calls himself "a tough taskmaster," has no idea who is behind the campaign, which began with rumormongering this past fall and heated up in June with the circulation of the poison-pen letters. "They're taking things and pieces from the rumor mill and trying to expand on it egregiously. It must be someone who harbors deep resentment and is very disgruntled," he adds.

"Anyone in public life is open to this," laments City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, who assumed responsibility for the hiring search after the resignation this past spring of his predecessor Roger Carlton. The new city manager says he is reviewing the performance of all city department heads and within the next 60 days will decide whether Barreto should be named permanent chief. (Sources within the department and city hall say Barreto is the only candidate actively under consideration.) "I'm interested in facts, not accusations," Garcia-Pedrosa asserts. "I have checked into every allegation that I heard, and I didn't find anything to disqualify him from being considered as permanent chief."

Mayor Seymour Gelber derides the letters as "garbage," but says, "Regrettably, that kind of campaign makes the person doing the selection pause; you can't totally disregard the information."

Barreto has made a number of enemies since joining the force in 1970. Despite being hailed in the department's current annual report as Miami Beach's first Hispanic assistant chief of police, Barreto's bitterest critics are Hispanic officers. "He has manufactured an image that he's Hispanic for political gain," contends Det. Gus Sanchez, president of the Hispanic Law Enforcement Association of Miami Beach. "Over the years, he never claimed to be Hispanic and never did anything for Hispanics," adds Sanchez. Barreto didn't officially register with the department as a Hispanic until 1988, or with the city personnel office until last year. (In 1991 he filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that he had been passed over for promotion because of his Cuban heritage. The following year he filed a suit against the city, claiming he'd been retaliated against. The suit was settled; the terms were confidential.)

The clash between Sanchez's organization, which comprises about 65 members, and Barreto goes back to the early Eighties, when Barreto opposed the formation of the group and, he admits, downplayed his own ethnic heritage. "It's petty," he says of the jibes about his ethnicity.

Barreto's reputation among Hispanic officers wasn't helped by his ruling late last year to uphold a controversial decision to remove a few Hispanic officers from the department's narcotics unit. Several years earlier, SWAT team officers filed suit contending they deserved to be paid for the physical training time required to stay in shape for their jobs; Barreto testified against them in federal court last year. (A jury sided with the SWAT officers on most counts; no monetary award has yet been granted.) And as a good friend of Alan Solowitz, a former assistant chief of police, he has been condemned for having been part of an "arrogant, bullying" clique known as the "Witzes."

Though his detractors note that Barreto never graduated from college (which means, technically, that he fails to meet the qualifications for police chief advertised when the job opened up last fall), Garcia-Pedrosa counters that the potential chief's "knowledge of police practices and procedures" constitutes a more crucial qualification. Barreto says that in December he will complete his studies toward a bachelor's degree from Barry University.

The more serious allegations contained in the anonymous letters seem to be only sketchily grounded in reality:

The letter-writer points to Barreto's "arrest record prior to coming on the department, and numerous arrests for illegal use of firearms while a police officer."

As a nineteen-year-old, Barreto and a friend were arrested in 1968 for firing a shotgun near an abandoned airfield in Hialeah. The case was dismissed. Also in 1968, the Florida Highway Patrol arrested him for possession of alcohol by a minor; he faced similar charges at about that time in Daytona Beach. Both cases resulted in small fines. Barreto disclosed all the arrests when he applied for membership on the police force, according to his application background report. As to the "numerous" other arrests, a Metro-Dade Police spokesman says a search of local and federal databases turned up no additional information.

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