Copping an Excuse

Faced with evidence their cop shop is in disarray, town fathers practice some first-rate denial

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Copping an Excuse
Faced with evidence their cop shop is in disarray, town fathers practice some first-rate denial

By Kathy Glasgow
A ten-page report released Friday by the Dade State Attorney's Office minces no words: The Surfside Police Department is "in disarray," has suffered from "years of apparent mismanagement and lack of leadership," and should be thoroughly evaluated by an outside law enforcement agency.

The report follows an eighteen-month investigation of allegations lodged by several Surfside officers against their superiors. Although one sergeant now faces criminal charges, most of the department's administration has "evaded responsibility" for unethical and possibly criminal acts during the past several years, according to the report written by Assistant State Attorney William Altfield.

Far from feeling chastened, Surfside officials are angry and defiant. "I don't think this report in any way justifies the conclusion," fumes town manager Hal Cohen. "There are so many things wrong [in the report], both legally and factually, and it's done a lot of injustice to some good people in the department."

Both sides, though, profess to be gratified at recently implemented changes within the department, which has been riven by intense feuding for the past two years. "I don't see where we're in disarray," says chief Terrill Williamson, who adds he and his lieutenants are now "doing our own departmental investigation to see where all this disarray is. There's a few things I thought should be improved, and we've made substantial changes on our own in the past six months."

Most of the issues center on conflicts between street cops and ranking officers. According to Williamson, the restiveness can be traced to a dispute between Sgt. James Garrett and a patrol officer who became furious over what he said was an order by Garrett to stop making DUI arrests. (Williamson has always maintained that Garrett's directive, which was intended to beef up patrols of residential neighborhoods and to discourage excessive court appearances for minor traffic stops, was misinterpreted by certain officers.)

However it began, the conflict grew to involve most of the 25 sworn officers on the force and to encompass myriad problems. They revolve mainly around allegations that ranking officers forced underlings to violate departmental rules and even the law, all in an effort to make Surfside look crime-free and more tourist-friendly than it actually was. There were also charges that numerous items being held in the police property room had been stolen or illegally disposed of. In early 1995 a group of officers went first to the police union -- the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) -- and then to the State Attorney's Office (SAO), which began a criminal investigation in April of that year. Last November a departmental survey by a Tallahassee political consulting firm hired by the PBA found a high percentage of officers who said they were ordered by superiors to violate rules or to refrain from enforcing certain laws. And almost 85 percent said morale was "very low."

The SAO report examines several of the allegations made by the disgruntled officers and concluded in most instances that evidence was insufficient to sustain criminal charges. Garrett (who supervised the police property room), however, had allegedly given a confiscated BB gun to a town employee and falsified the disposition receipt. Garrett has been charged with official misconduct (a felony) and petty theft (a misdemeanor). He has been relieved of duty without pay. Other allegations were impossible to prove because the room's log book, in which all seized property and final dispositions were to be recorded, hadn't been used since 1987, a situation the report deems "not only unprofessional, but incomprehensible." A new record-keeping and inventory system is now in place in the property room, according to Surfside Police spokesman Lt. Larry Boemler, formerly in charge of the Miami office of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and one of two lieutenants hired as part of ongoing changes within the Surfside department.

Officers complained that, in addition to the DUI strictures, police administrators also discouraged or prohibited other traffic arrests and ordered arrest reports changed to reflect less-serious charges, all in an effort to improve Surfside's statistics reported to the FBI for its nationwide Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). Traffic arrests not involving DUI, which according to the SAO report make up the majority of arrests in the town, aren't included on the UCR, but DUIs are. Redirecting manpower away from from DUI enforcement, while "irresponsible," isn't a crime, the report concludes.

Investigators were unable to compile enough evidence to make a criminal case against anyone alleged to have altered police reports. A May 1995 New Times story related a case (not detailed in the SAO report) in which an officer downgraded the value of a theft, and another in which an officer deleted a criminal charge from an arrest form, allegedly at his superior's instructions. In yet another case, Altfield found two versions of an arrest form, the first classifying an assault as a strong-arm robbery, the second (dated four months later) as a burglary, a nonviolent and less-serious crime. Boemler, however, says the crime was changed by the reporting officer's superior not to "burglary" but to "burglary of a residence with assault on a person therein," which is a more serious, first-degree felony (strong-arm robbery is a second-degree felony).

The numerous claims of forms being altered were impossible to substantiate, according to the SAO report, because there was no way to verify who made changes or deletions on the computer. Town and police officials state that a computer security system has now been installed.

But those same officials dispute other statements. Chief Williamson told SAO investigators, according to the report, that he discontinued an internal affairs investigation of two officers accused of dereliction of duty. The two -- the sole Surfside officers on duty one night a few years ago -- never answered repeated radio alerts by the Surfside dispatcher, even though other officers from neighboring police departments heard the dispatcher and eventually responded to the call. Williamson said he dropped the IA matter after firing the dispatcher (who is now suing the town). Boemler contends that the IA investigation still continues. Also, whereas the report states that the police department failed to investigate charges that Garrett was being paid for an off-duty job while collecting on-duty police pay, Boemler says the department does in fact plan to pursue that allegation and others raised in the report.

As for bringing in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) or another agency to evaluate the Surfside department, town manager Cohen says he would never entertain the suggestion because he would then appear to agree with the report's findings.

Altfield says if the State Attorney's Office erred in its conclusions, it was on the side of caution. "My role was limited to a criminal investigation where I had to prove a charge beyond a reasonable doubt," he says. "But as far as our office is concerned, this was a real bad problem that needed to be looked into, and now it looks like it's starting to be addressed.

Last week's article "Copping an Excuse," by Kathy Glasgow, incorrectly stated that Surfside Police Chief Terrill Williamson said he fired a police dispatcher. While a recent State Attorney's Office report did make several references to the "firing" and "termination" of a Surfside Police Department dispatcher, the report did not state that Williamson personally fired the dispatcher or that the chief said he had fired the dispatcher. The dispatcher, however, claims that Williamson forced him to resign. New Times regrets the error.Info:Published:

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