Policing the Police

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

During the argument, Solorzano said two other officers were present: the officer who had arrested her and Garcia's patrol partner. Indeed, the cop who had arrested her, Ofcr. Rodolfo Herbello, admitted that he had been in the same room but claimed to have been so absorbed by his paperwork that the commotion didn't register until he heard the flat sound of a slap. Then he looked up. He saw Solorzano standing against a wall, crying. Garcia, he said, left the room, mumbling, "She's a bitch anyway."

Sgt. Ruben Cantillo was on the road when he got word that Garcia was having trouble with a prisoner. He hurried back to the police station. Cantillo had supervised Garcia for about a year and a half. In his sworn statement to internal affairs investigators, he described the young officer as "a nightmare."

Tall, with wavy brown hair and the pumped-up good looks of a Miami Vice extra, Garcia had difficulty abiding by departmental regulations, as documented by police records. Though he was frequently commended for his gung-ho attitude toward arresting criminals (this past August he was runnerup for outstanding officer of the month), Garcia was also repeatedly reprimanded: for taking unauthorized dinner breaks, for not securing his weapon properly, for lacking proper attire, for improper parking. He had also been the subject of four previous unsustained complaints of "abusive force."

Garcia didn't listen, Cantillo told internal affairs investigators. "I fear for the well-being of the people as citizens," he continued, adding that he had written a memo to his supervisor requesting that Garcia be transferred off the street pending the outcome of the investigation prompted by Solorzano's complaint. (Garcia wasn't transferred, and before the end of the year, in October 1994, another complaint of excessive force was filed against him.)

During his interview with investigators, Cantillo read aloud from his memo: "[I am] very concerned with the safety of the public that [Garcia] comes in contact with during his tour of duty." Cantillo also reported that he had seen Solorzano after she was put back in the cell and noticed that her ear was swollen and smeared with a trickle of dried blood. Nevertheless he said he didn't expect other officers to confirm her story. "To begin with, it is hard for a policeman to turn in another police officer because they do have to work together and back each other up," he noted. Cantillo added that he expected Ofcr. Antonio Hernandez, Garcia's partner who was also allegedly in the room when the slap occurred, would "try to cover up for Garcia, that is the bottom line."

When Hernandez spoke to investigators, he denied seeing Garcia slap Solorzano and claimed he was not in the room during the dispute. Nonetheless internal affairs sustained Solorzano's allegation, and Garcia's supervisor recommended a four-week suspension.

As is normal procedure at the Miami Police Department, a departmental disciplinary review board -- made up of two representatives chosen by the accused officer, two chosen by the department, and one union representative -- was convened to consider the investigation. By a vote of 3-2 the board cleared Garcia.

The board members' recommendation was sent to Chief Donald Warshaw, who overruled them and mandated a 40-hour suspension. "There is no place on this police department for police officers who abuse citizens," the chief intoned sternly during a recent interview. Warshaw pointed out that in the past two years, at least two other officers have been removed from duty after being charged with excessive force by the State Attorney's Office.

In one of those cases, two officers testified that they had seen one of their colleagues hit a handcuffed subject. "The conception that officers won't come forward and report on other officers for illegal or inappropriate action isn't true," declares Maj. William O'Brien, who supervises Miami's internal affairs unit and reports directly to Chief Warshaw. "This is not a police department of cowboys," O'Brien says. "This is an honorable police department."

If O'Brien's tone seems defensive, it is with good reason. Over the years, Miami's police department has generated more than its share of headlines for scandals involving crooked or violent officers, from the notorious River Cops to the officers who beat to death petty drug dealer Leonardo Mercado to William Lozano's fatal shooting of a black motorcyclist that unleashed three days of mayhem in the inner city. Last year residents in Coconut Grove protested after a black youth was shot by a white police officer who mistook a pistol-shaped cigarette lighter for a real weapon.

Miami's police department has far more complaints regarding excessive use of force filed with its internal affairs unit than any other in Dade County. In the past five years, Miami investigators looked into at least 460 complaints. Investigators at Metro-Dade, which employs more than twice the number of sworn officers, received less than half Miami's number of complaints.

Chief Warshaw maintains that such comparisons are unfair. First, he says, Miami's figures are inflated by the department's all-inclusive record-keeping policies. Miami accepts complaints over the phone and, unlike other departments, opens an investigation that is statistically logged. If the complainant later declines to cooperate or investigators determine that there is no basis on which to continue an investigation, the complaint is categorized as "information only."

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