Policing the Police

An investigation into complaints about police use of excessive force confirms what many citizens already believe: Cops cover for cops

Depending on one's point of view, Alan Smith had the lousy luck to be standing ahead of Det. Frank Irvine at the Convenient Spot convenience store in North Miami on April 14, 1994. Or perhaps the misfortune was all Detective Irvine's. The chance encounter would cost the emotionally disturbed, 25-year-old Smith twelve days in the slammer. The North Miami police officer would see his sixteen-year career come to an ignominious end.

The way Detective Irvine told it to his sergeant, his lieutenant, and his chief -- all of whom eventually showed up at the scene -- Irvine caught Smith trying to heist a pack of cigarettes. Smith became violent, scuffling with the detective and pulling a small pocket knife.

For his part, Smith has difficulty remembering exactly how the struggle started but he denies he attacked the officer. "I kept getting beat and beat and beat," he said in a sworn statement, explaining that all he recalled of that evening's brawl was cowering with his arms over his face to ward off blows. Although not injured seriously enough to warrant medical care, Smith lodged a complaint against Irvine with the North Miami Police Department's internal affairs unit.

Internal affairs investigators at police departments throughout Dade County hear such stories regularly. An individual -- the subject of an arrest, a witness, the recipient of a traffic ticket -- accuses a police officer of using excessive force. Investigators open a file. They take statements from the victim, the witnesses, and the officers involved, and they search for physical evidence -- cuts and scrapes, ripped clothes, bruises, a photograph, sometimes even videotape.

Such inquiries yield myriad outcomes. Depending on the department, either the chief, a disposition panel, or the investigators themselves review the facts gathered and then make a determination. The simplest result is also the most uncommon: They "sustain" the case, meaning they decide the allegations are true -- the officer used excessive force and is subject to discipline.

Far more often they employ a range of categories to set aside the allegations. Although the nomenclature varies from department to department, the three main findings are cleared (or exonerated), meaning the amount of force used by the officer was appropriate; unfounded (or unsupported), meaning the allegations are false; and not sustained, meaning investigators were unable to determine precisely what occurred.

This last finding might appear to be at odds with the purpose of an investigation -- to weigh opposing stories and arrive at the truth -- but in fact it is a routine result of internal affairs investigations. Investigators maintain that available evidence is frequently insufficient to prove or disprove one side or the other. After taking sworn statements and comparing them for inconsistencies, there is often little else they can do, they say.

Given the discrepancies between Smith's and Irvine's recollections of their tussle, Smith's complaint would almost certainly have been destined to result in a finding of not sustained. Such an ambiguous outcome was avoided by fortuitous happenstance: The beating was captured by the store's surveillance camera. The video shows Detective Irvine standing behind Smith in the checkout line, puffing on a cigar.

Smith is small, lithe, and hyper, dressed in a baseball cap and jacket. He dances in place, turning again and again toward Irvine, grimacing and waving his hand in front of his face. The video is silent but the dialogue is implicit. "That cigar smells like shit, man!" Irvine, tall, bulky, and stolid, continues puffing. As Smith pays for his purchase and walks toward the door, Irvine follows him. He takes off his rings and places them in his pocket, and then grabs Smith's jacket. Then Irvine hauls back and punches Smith, who is off-camera now. Still puffing, he punches him again. And again. Then Irvine also disappears from view. Shoppers gather, peering down an aisle, as if they are watching a fight. Minutes pass. Irvine appears again, this time dragging Smith, whose shirt is ripped, his jacket pulled over his head in an improvised straitjacket. Irvine takes the younger man outside.

The North Miami internal affairs department sent Irvine's case directly to the State Attorney's Office, which charged him with battery, official misconduct, and making a false statement to law enforcement officials in connection with the incident. Last week he pleaded guilty to battery and making a false report and was sentenced to one year's probation. He also resigned from the North Miami Police Department.

The Dade State Attorney's Office has prosecuted only about a dozen police officers for excessive use of force during the past five years. The number might seem low considering that each of Dade's 28 separate police departments regularly refers complaints involving possible criminal conduct to prosecutors before they close their internal affairs investigations. But Joe Centorino, chief of the State Attorney's public corruption division, says, "There are a lot of these cases that can't be prosecuted. There is often a dearth of evidence, and the witnesses and victims often aren't particularly credible."

Lauderhill Police Chief Michael Scott, a nationally recognized expert on police use of deadly force, offers another explanation: "For better or for worse, the police and the prosecutors develop a close working relationship. The policies and the attitude of the chief prosecutor can make a difference in how the local [prosecutor] views police misconduct."

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