Insult to Injury

A South Beach restaurant owner says she was wrongly pulled over, then assaulted and ridiculed by Miami Beach cops

At half past nine on Easter Sunday evening, April 7, Gina Cunningham drove south on Miami Beach and turned right from Euclid Avenue onto Fifth Street. She was headed for Tap Tap, the popular Haitian eatery/art gallery she co-owns, but she was about to get sidetracked.

It began when Miami Beach Police Ofcr. Juan Rivera flashed the lights atop his cruiser and pulled her over. She had failed to stop at the stop sign at Euclid and Fifth, Rivera informed her. Wrong, Cunningham insisted as she grudgingly produced her driver's license for his inspection; she had come to a full stop. She wasn't wearing corrective lenses, Rivera countered. Wrong, spat back Cunningham, who wears bright green contacts. "Any fool can see I have my lenses in!"

As Cunningham's ire rose, so did Rivera's, and matters quickly escalated to the point where the 32-year-old rookie officer ordered the stocky 40-year-old out of her car to be searched for weapons. "[Cunningham] refused [the pat-down] and pushed me away," Rivera later wrote in a four-page typed report about the incident. "[Cunningham] then said: 'Oh no, you are not going to touch me, I want a female officer.'"

Cunningham says Rivera did indeed commence to search her, and in the process attempted to ram his hand into her crotch. The next thing she knew, she says, she was being gassed in the eyes with pepper spray at point-blank range, thrown to the ground and handcuffed, and hauled away. Cunningham was later charged with careless driving, battery on a police officer, resisting arrest with violence, and driving without corrective lenses.

But Cunningham's night had just begun.
She was driven the few blocks to Miami Beach police headquarters in the back seat of Rivera's cruiser. The pain in her eyes was agonizing, Cunningham recalls. "I couldn't breathe and I couldn't see. When they attempted to roughly make me get out of the car, I realized that not only were my eyes damaged, but my leg was hurt as well, and I couldn't walk properly. Somehow I slid out of the car onto the concrete floor of the [police department's] parking garage. I lay on the ground for a long time."

Twelve years ago, while living in New York City, Cunningham had been run over by a cement truck, which severed her right leg. The leg, though mangled, was reattached, and after extensive rehabilitation Cunningham can walk with a barely perceptible limp. She must, however, avoid rough jolts and bumps that can erode the thin layer of cartilage separating the bones in her leg and ankle, which remain quite deformed.

Cunningham says she begged for medical attention, pleading for assistance from Rivera and other officers who passed by. "They were saying, 'Shut up, shut up, you bitch, there's nothing wrong with you. Do you want us to do it again?' I spent about two hours lying on the concrete floor of the parking lot crying for help and being made fun of by the police officers."

When paramedics did show up, Cunningham alleges, they drenched her with water, little of which reached her burning eyes. She complained, at which point she says the paramedics accused her of not cooperating. "They were spraying water on my breasts and laughing about them," Cunningham says. "They wouldn't come anywhere near my eyes. They said I was drunk and had pissed myself. They said, 'All drunks do that.'"

She says two officers brandished gas canisters, one aimed at each side of her face, while a third officer stood in front of her and patted his sidearm. "They said, 'You know you hit the cop first,'" she alleges.

According to Rivera's report, Cunningham "sat down on the floor and began complaining of pain in her right leg, on a 10-years-old [sic] surgery scar." She also was allegedly "yelling and cursing and threatening officers with a lawsuit."

Jackson Memorial Hospital records indicate that at 11:40 p.m. emergency medical personnel brought her to the hospital's prison ward, commonly known as Ward D. The ambulance drivers had been kind to her, Cunningham says. They set her injured leg in a splint and gave her a blanket when she complained of feeling cold. The sensitive treatment led her to believe her ordeal had ended. At Ward D, she was examined by Dr. Maurice Sepe, who has worked in the prison unit for five years. "I said, 'Look at my leg, please help me.' He said, 'That's an old injury. You should be ashamed of yourself for trying to get mileage out of it.'"

From Rivera's report: "The doctor was not able to find anything wrong with [Cunningham] during the physical exam he performed on her. [Cunningham] began to scream and demand an orthopedic doctor because she allegedly was in pain."

The subject was "very uncooperative," with "multiple complaints," reads the hospital's triage sheet.

Sepe recalls Cunningham's visit, but on the advice of Ann-Lynn Denker, Jackson's director of public affairs, he will only speak generally about such situations. "Someone can't come in here and say, 'I want to go to the hospital,'" he says, commenting on why he would refuse to treat a patient. "That's absurd. You don't admit someone into the hospital for pain. They only get admitted if they need treatment."

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