Policing the Police

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

The police department also invites citizens to complain, Warshaw says, because he wants to foster community confidence in the department. The message seems to be getting through. The internal affairs telephone number has been found scratched into pay phones around the city, Warshaw notes, and the name of the sergeant heading the unit, along with his phone number, was found among the papers of a drug ring busted in 1993. "The question came up, why was my number there?" recalls Sgt. Louis Gonzalez, grinning sheepishly at the memory. "And it came out that the word was, 'If you have a problem with a police officer, call Louie.'"

"Information only" cases accounted for almost 40 percent of all Miami excessive-force complaints from 1991 to 1995. Even when such cases were factored out, however, Miami still received 150 percent more complaints than Metro-Dade.

Warshaw downplays the dramatic difference. The nature of police work in Miami's inner city is fundamentally different from areas like Kendall or West Dade, he says. "We have the problems of any major downtown urban city in America, and a lot of that has to do with the topography of who we are." He refers to the proximity of the Dade County jail (newly released prisoners tend to drift downtown, as opposed to, say, Aventura), the persistent homeless population, the various business, retail, and warehouse districts -- elements that tend to boost Miami's arrest statistics and increase the chances for a violent encounter.

Some law enforcement experts agree with Warshaw's theory that urban policing -- by nature more violent and stressful -- will lead to more excessive-force complaints. But Wes Pomeroy, the recently retired head of Metro-Dade's Independent Review Board, which investigates citizens' complaints against county employees, including police officers, is skeptical of Warshaw's rationale. "Metro-Dade covers a lot of the same type of areas that Miami does," he says. "I mean, you can't tell the difference between the two departments."

It is true that Miami police officers make roughly 50 percent more arrests per officer per year than their Metro-Dade counterparts, according to data provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That figure partially backs up Warshaw's claim that Miami police officers are not more violent, they are simply more productive.

"If you have double the rate of complaints per arrests in one department in particular, one question I'd have is how they are making the arrests," Pomeroy says. But he also points out that other variables should be taken into consideration when interpreting such statistics: "In a corrupt neighborhood where the police are getting paid off, no one gets arrested and there are no complaints."

If the absence of complaints is potentially a sign of trouble, multiple complaints against particular officers at a particular police department would seem to be an obvious indication that something is amiss.

In fact, a core group of ten officers at the Miami Police Department prompted more complaints for excessive use of force over the past five years than the total complaints received by Coral Gables, Homestead, North Miami, and Hialeah combined. A similar group of officers, averaging at least four complaints apiece, existed in Miami Beach.

In Miami the ten officers had received at least six complaints each, with one officer, a veteran street cop named Willie Bell, logging a grand total of fifteen complaints, the highest of any police officer at the seven agencies scrutinized.

Over the past five years, Bell has been accused of dragging a possible witness to a drug transaction down a flight of concrete stairs, hitting a prisoner with his flashlight, slapping another prisoner, and grabbing yet another prisoner by the testicles. Only one of the complaints -- for punching a prisoner who was hog-tied to a gurney at Jackson Memorial Hospital -- was sustained.

"Willie Bell?" responds Maj. William O'Brien when asked about Bell's roster of complaints. "He's been on the police force for sixteen years, and for sixteen years he's worked the streets in high-profile units in the narcotics area. To this day, after sixteen years, he hasn't taken on-duty retirement. He still goes out there every day. He still makes arrests and puts the bad guys in jail. His average, although high, is not out of order." In evaluations over the years, Bell is described as "conscientious," "tireless," "hard-working," "an asset to the department," and "one of our most productive employees." His personnel file is plump with more than 125 commendations, including at least 28 letters from citizens praising Bell as an exemplary officer. Based on his copious arrest statistics, he has been nominated officer of the month several times. There is only a hint of trouble. Twelve years ago a supervisor wrote, "[Bell] has the knowledge and ability to do a good job. He simply has to learn to control his temper."

Bell himself concedes he sometimes flies off the handle, but denies physically abusing his prisoners. "I don't tolerate dope dealers while I work," he says bluntly. "They are going to complain and there is nothing I can do about it."

As a black officer patrolling Overtown and Liberty City, Bell says the black men he arrests expect him to look the other way, and they get angry when he doesn't. "They're like, 'Yo, brother man,' and I'm like, 'I'm not your brother, I'm here to do a job.' I've made mistakes out there, I've probably gone overboard, but I have this thing -- I can't stand to see people's lives disrupted by dope dealers. Maybe I take it too personal." Bell says most of the complaints are filed by drug dealers he has arrested who are seeking revenge and that some are obviously frivolous. "I was out of the country in Canada and a guy said that I had pulled his pants down and put my finger in his butt. They took the complaint!" he says incredulously.

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