Jailhouse Rumble

If racial strife and political bickering were crimes, the entire staff of Dade County's corrections department would be locked up

Eventually Dennis was handcuffed behind his back and his feet were placed in shackles. He was then dragged to the jail's medical clinic. Sara Walker followed them there and later said several officers continued "kicking, banging, knocking" Dennis while he awaited medical attention. "Enough is enough. Stop!" Walker recalled telling the officers, who then left the clinic.

As Dennis lay handcuffed in one of the clinic's cells crying and bleeding, Arocho was taken to Cedars Medical Center for treatment of his bite wound. News of the incident spread quickly through the jail.

A few hours later, when Charles Felton heard what happened, he ordered an immediate investigation. He knew in his gut this one would be trouble.

Within 24 hours, OMCO and HACO were circling the Frank Dennis beating, looking to see how it might best play to their own agendas. Copies of the initial incident report written by the officers involved -- which should have been kept confidential during the investigation -- began circulating throughout the downtown jail and were soon being faxed to other county jail facilities.

Clark, OMCO's president, called an emergency meeting on Wednesday, August 24, 1994, to address, according to the group's flyers, "the brutal beating of a black man at the Dade County Jail," and "the racial tension centered around the excessive use of force by Latino officers," as well as "the lack of confidence in the department's internal affairs bureau."

Several of the female officers who reported the attack received death threats and had notes taped to their lockers, some of which read, "Die Nigger" and "Down with niggers!! This means you. Cubans rule Miami bitch." Who wrote the notes remains a mystery, although it is not impossible to imagine that they were written by a black or an Anglo hoping to fuel racial animosity toward Hispanics.

On September 8, 1994, HACO president Manuel Aladro wrote Felton three separate letters dealing with different aspects of the investigation into the Frank Dennis case. In the most extensive of the letters, Aladro questioned the credibility of each of the six black female officers who witnessed the altercation, and suggested they were deserving of investigation themselves. In attacking Ofcr. Sylvia Simmons, for example, Aladro noted that "according to other officers' statements, she was conducting a conversation away from her duty post. Is this a routine occurrence?"

In his letters, Aladro wrote that "it is imperative that the ethnic and racial tension stop," but then went on to attack the six black officers, arguing that they couldn't be trusted because, among other reasons, "they are all from the same racial and gender group."

Racially charged flyers began appearing throughout the jail system on September 15, 1994. One of them, from a group called the International African Movement, launched a racist tirade against Cubans. "If you read the history of Spaniards (white Cubans) and their relationship with people of African descent, you will find that Spaniards have treated people of African descent as crudely as anyone ever has," the flyer stated. "And with the recent incident involving the savage beating of a black inmate by several Hispanic (Cuban) corrections officers, we believe this is an example of things to come."

A second flyer, this one unsigned, recounted some of the events surrounding the Frank Dennis incident and named the Hispanic officers allegedly involved. "As of today, nothing has happened to the attacking officers," the flyer noted. "Not yet anyway."

That veiled threat was deemed all the more serious when it was discovered that the flyers were being posted in areas where jail inmates could read them. It was bad enough having such material circulated among the staff, but publicizing the names of the Hispanic officers among correction's 4500 black inmates, and suggesting it was a matter of black pride that something be done, sent shock waves through the system.

Police Benevolent Association president John Rivera couldn't believe what was happening. As head of the official bargaining unit for all corrections officers, Rivera normally tries to distance himself from internecine battles such as those between OMCO and HACO. But with the situation escalating dramatically, Rivera wrote Felton a letter dated September 29, 1994, in which he threatened to go to the State Attorney's Office and demand a grand jury investigation into the jail's command staff for allowing HACO and OMCO to interfere with a criminal investigation.

"The PBA is resorting to this drastic measure because all of our efforts to persuade both the department and the county to curtail the activities of said faction groups have been to no avail," Rivera wrote. "As a result of continuous illegal and improper discussions, several officers have been threatened to the point their safety may be jeopardized. The department is fully apprised of the divisive agenda of said factions, yet it continues to tolerate and entertain such groups at the expense of the safety of its officers and other personnel."

Word of the Dennis incident had also spread beyond the corrections department. The weekly black newspaper Miami Times wrote a story about the alleged beating based on a leaked copy of the original incident report. On September 26, 1994, the local civil rights group PULSE (People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality) held a meeting with Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle at which leaders demanded a thorough investigation of the allegations. The Miami Herald published a story the next day, noting that leaders in the black community were drawing comparisons between Frank Dennis and Rodney King.

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