Policing the Police

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

Metro-Dade, Miami, and Miami Beach all have some type of early-warning system in place that counts the number of complaints filed against a particular officer. At Metro-Dade two internal affairs complaints or three incidents involving force (but not necessarily leading to a complaint) over a three-month period prompt a computer-generated report advising a supervisor to review an officer's behavior.

Experts in improving the relationship between police departments and the communities they serve recommend such measures as a way of improving the effectiveness of internal affairs sections and ensuring the integrity of the internal affairs process. But despite such efforts, the level of skepticism among many members of the public remains high. The reason is simple: Even the most meticulous investigators rarely sustain complaints.

By way of explanation, police chiefs cite several phenomena. First, they say, so-called victims often don't understand the difference between excessive force and necessary force. Police officers are permitted, and sometimes required, to use force to make an arrest, they emphasize. Moreover, in order to boost public confidence in internal affairs, the chiefs say their departments do not screen the complaints they receive, a portion of which are frivolous or impossible to prove. According to internal affairs records, cases sometimes dead-end because the alleged victim disappears or stops cooperating. Additionally, many alleged incidents of excessive force are one-on-one encounters, and without supporting evidence or impartial witnesses, it is often legally impossible to sustain them.

Indeed, excessive-force complaints resulting from one-on-one encounters were only infrequently sustained during the five-year period examined for this article. Even the appearance of additional witnesses didn't necessarily clarify the nature or extent of the conflict.

More than fifteen police officers responded to a call from a Hialeah apartment complex after an argument between 33-year-old Maria Cristina Rodriguez and her husband Jorge Neyra turned ugly on June 19, 1994. According to witnesses who provided statements to police, Neyra was drunk and Rodriguez refused to give him the car keys. Neyra brandished a large kitchen knife, threatening to kill Rodriguez. He struggled with police officers until they finally subdued him by handcuffing and hog-tying him. His trussed body was then heaved into the back of a police cruiser.

Two days later the wife gave a statement to an internal affairs investigator at the Hialeah Police Department. She admitted calling the police, but said they had overreacted, kicking her husband in the stomach after he was handcuffed, pulling her hair, and roughing up a neighbor who tried to intercede. "I called the police just to calm him because he normally is not like this," Rodriguez said in a sworn statement. "It's just that drinking must have harmed him, and I just wanted them to take him until he was over the drunkenness."

But Rodriguez couldn't identify any of the officers who had mistreated her and her husband. Two neighbors who said Neyra was unnecessarily kicked and punched after he had stopped resisting arrest were also unable to identify any officers.

"I'm telling you they were beating him for more than twenty minutes while he was on the floor for no reason," Idis Cano told investigators. The wife of the manager of the apartment complex, Cano was present throughout the melee. "There was no reason," Cano continued. "Okay, he had gotten aggressive, he lashed out or did what he had to do, but to a point. I really -- I'm saying, one calls the police to help and what you get is that they might kill someone or leave him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. I sincerely thought they had killed him."

Two additional witnesses could not identify the officers, and none of the fifteen officers who spoke to internal affairs acknowledged seeing any officer hit Neyra.

After reading the internal affairs report, Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolanos decided the allegations couldn't be substantiated. "We're guided by procedural and substantive due process," he explains. "Something went wrong here. I think the officers did something wrong, but I can't prove what happened."

In Hialeah, internal affairs investigations go straight to Chief Bolanos, who decides whether the allegations should be upheld and, if so, what discipline is merited. In other departments, such as Miami and Miami Beach, internal affairs itself usually issues a finding. (Metro-Dade refers the completed investigation to a disposition panel made up of three members of the command staff.) Discipline is then determined by an officer's supervisor and reviewed up the chain of command. In the last five years, Bolanos has sustained two complaints of excessive force. Twenty complaints were investigated.

The most recent sustained incident occurred September 13, 1993. As in Neyra's complaint, police intervened in a violent domestic argument and ended up fighting with the people they were trying to assist. While Neyra suffered minor scratches and bruises, Juan Negrete, an unemployed, 41-year-old Ecuadoran immigrant, lost a swath of skin from his chest after someone cuffed his arms and legs together and dragged him along the ground.

"They get me by my chain, which they had me like this, and they dragged me like a pig from there to some stairs," Negrete told internal affairs investigators, explaining how he had initially been dumped by the side of a police car and then hauled shirtless to a spot ten to fifteen feet away so the officer could change a tire on his car.

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