Insult to Injury

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

Emergency medical technicians transported Cunningham to the Dade County Jail several blocks from the hospital. But when she continued to complain of pain in her leg, she was taken back to Ward D, where she says she was handcuffed to a cot in a corridor, her clothes still sopping from the paramedics' earlier drenching, while male corrections officers ridiculed her. "They called me a 'fat old bitch.' They were talking about their wives, saying how 'pussies should be beaten once a day, like that one over there,' referring to me. They were watching some television show about how a cop had put cocaine in someone's car, and they said, 'That's what you should have done to the bitch outside.'"

Dr. Gerald Kratz, medical director of Ward D, says Cunningham's allegations about his staff are hearsay. "The problem that I face in a situation like this is that you have someone saying all these terrible things happened," he explains. "I wish she would file a complaint; we would investigate it. I can't swear to you that people don't misbehave, but I can tell you that it is totally against policy."

Cunningham says she intends to file a complaint.
While she sat in Ward D, Cunningham's husband Peter Eves and a friend were trying to track her down. They called the Beach police headquarters shortly after her arrest, but they were told she wasn't there. Calls to local jails elicited similar responses. (Because Cunningham had been taken to Ward D, she was not technically booked, and thus was, in effect, in limbo.)

Finally, at four o'clock in the morning, they caught up with Cunningham at Ward D, and as Monday dawned, Eves was able to arrange for the $10,500 bail. He took his wife to Mt. Sinai Medical Center, where she was diagnosed with a soft-tissue injury. Her bad leg was placed in a cast. Later that morning her optometrist removed her contact lenses. The optometrist, Dr. Herbert Weiss, says Cunningham suffered a mild chemical burn in her right eye and an extensive one in her left.

Cunningham retained an attorney, but criminal charges against her were dropped this past Wednesday, May 29. (The traffic charges are still pending.) She intends to report the incident to the Miami Beach Police Department's Office of Internal Affairs this week, and is considering filing a civil suit. She took no action earlier, Cunningham explains, for fear that to do so would antagonize the police department.

Miami Beach Police Department spokesman Al Boza says such fears are groundless. "We have very well established complaint procedures, and in a situation where a person feels they have been treated wrongly by the police, they should go to Internal Affairs or to the State Attorney's Office," Boza says.

But he is inclined to reject Cunningham's allegation that her arrest was improperly handled. "From the very start, it was a full-blown situation with that woman," he says. He will not speculate about the decision of the Dade State Attorney's Office to drop the charges against Cunningham. "They can have a thousand and one reasons, none of which has to do with the validity of the case," Boza says.

The assistant state attorney who handled the case, Maria Hickman, could not be reached for comment.

Several eyewitnesses who were nearby when Cunningham was pulled over contradict the police department's account of events. Postpop surrealist artist Kenny Scharf and his wife Tereza were sitting in their car near Tap Tap waiting for Cunningham to arrive. "We thought, 'Oh, Gina's getting a traffic ticket, what a drag,'" Scharf recalls. "All of a sudden Tereza starts screaming, 'He's beating her, he's beating her,' and the two of us jumped from the car and ran to the corner. Gina's face was red and swollen, her eyes were bleary, and she was foaming at the mouth from the pepper spray. The scene was very violent."

Tony Lopez, who is not acquainted with either Cunningham or Rivera, was leaving his apartment on Meridian Avenue, and later wrote out a statement at Peter Eves's request. "As I approached the scene, the officer was beating on the lady with a stick," the statement reads. "Then he sprayed her with mace like she was a roach!"

In his report, Rivera claimed that Cunningham jabbed him with her elbow as he was trying to handcuff her. "I sprayed her to minimize injury to her or me," he wrote.

A special order issued by the Miami Beach Police Department in January 1995 details procedures for using a police-issued aerosol deterrent. According to the regulations, the cayenne pepper spray should be used from a distance of two to twelve feet. Cunningham claims Rivera held the canister inches from her eyes; photographs taken the day after the arrest show a blistered welt under her left eye, where she claims Rivera directed the spray.

The departmental order also prescribes treatment for suspects who have been sprayed: "After spraying a suspect, afford him/her an opportunity to wash the contaminated areas. Apply wet paper towels to the face, discarding each towel as it is removed from the face. Use the fan in the holding facility to blow air on the suspect's face. This will hasten recovery."

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