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."

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."

Police spokesman Al Boza says that calling paramedics to treat Cunningham was an acceptable procedure.

Juan Rivera, who joined the police force in November 1994 after working as a recreation guard and building attendant for the City of Miami Beach for seven years, was within days of completing his mandatory probationary period when he arrested Gina Cunningham. His personnel file contains several citations for exemplary work and no evidence of prior disciplinary actions. Rivera says department policy prevents him from commenting about the allegations.

Beginning in 1991, when a newly elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted from the Haitian presidency, Cunningham and Eves volunteered support for refugees fleeing the military government. Using money Cunningham received as compensation for her cement-truck injuries, they have given aid to more than a dozen Haitians, many of them former political prisoners. In 1992 the couple purchased Tap Tap, then spent the next two years renovating the restaurant, hiring local Haitian artists to decorate the interior. Since Tap Tap opened in 1994, Cunningham has frequently donated the space for poetry readings and meetings of community-based organizations.

She says it's embarrassing to discuss her arrest because it seems so trivial compared to the suffering her Haitian friends have undergone. But in the weeks following the incident, she says, she heard similar stories of abuse at the hands of Miami Beach police officers. "We have money and connections," she explains, "but look at all the other people who end up in this position. What happens to them?

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