By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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."
Under ideal circumstances, state attorney's offices function as checks on police abuse. Not only do they prosecute errant officers, but victims who are uncomfortable reporting their complaints to an internal affairs unit can go directly to state prosecutors. State attorney investigators, however, are rarely assigned to look into allegations of excessive use of force, an expression of confidence in the thoroughness of internal affairs investigators. Ordinarily, says Centorino, the State Attorney's Office refers back to internal affairs those complaints it receives directly from the public.
Victims who would prefer to avoid the internal affairs section have little recourse. Theoretically, they can turn to the Federal Bureau of Investigations and hope that the Justice Department will pursue allegations of civil rights violations in federal court. In practice, that only occasionally happens. Nationwide, U.S. attorney's offices filed only seven such cases in fiscal year 1995. The overwhelming majority of complaints about police treatment thus defaults to internal affairs units and to investigators who are themselves police officers.
The arrangement does not foster public confidence. One example: Kelly Hyler, a 21-year-old model, says she was handcuffed and thrown to the ground by three Miami Beach police officers last November after a friend got into an argument with a bouncer outside a nightclub on Washington Avenue in South Beach.
"I have a scar on my shoulder and my knees are scarred for life," she recounts. "They threw me while I was in handcuffs, otherwise I would have stopped myself [from falling] with my hand. They kept me on the sidewalk for two hours." The officers charged Hyler with resisting arrest without violence, disorderly conduct, and disorderly intoxication. She pleaded not guilty, and this past summer the charges were dropped.
Hyler says she considered filing a complaint but decided against it. "They have this real corrupt thing going on down there, and I'd love to bust it wide open, but I just don't have the energy and the drive," Hyler says from South Carolina, where her parents live. "I'm not the type of person to go after them, but I think that this [police abuse] is a problem in Miami, and it's just going to keep happening." After the incident, Hyler moved back home.
Over the past several years, numerous Dade County residents have contacted New Times with anecdotal accounts of mistreatment at the hands of police officers. Only a fraction of those have resulted in published articles. But in an effort to quantify the problem and to evaluate police response to accusations of abusive treatment (also referred to as excessive use of force), New Times examined internal affairs records for seven Dade police departments dating back to 1991. Out of a total 795 complaints, only 1.6 percent were sustained. (The seven departments were Metro-Dade, Miami, Miami Beach, Hialeah, Coral Gables, North Miami, and Homestead -- which employ 65 percent of all sworn officers in Dade County.)
The significance of Dade's 1.6 percent figure is a matter of some debate. James Green, the legal-panel chair for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says the number supports the ACLU's belief that channels for dealing with allegations of police misconduct are inadequate.
But according to Sam Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert in civilian review of police, drawing appropriate conclusions is not so easy. "The official numbers on sustained complaints are tricky," Walker observes. "In some cases they mean the opposite of what they appear to mean." Rather than indicating a problem with the way excessive-force complaints are investigated in Dade County, the low sustained figure may simply mean that departments have been successful in persuading the public to utilize the process, thus generating a large number of frivolous or hard-to-prove complaints.
Nevertheless, Walker concedes that Dade's numbers appear to be unusually low. He cites a 1993 study by the Police Foundation, a nonprofit, Washington D.C.-based think tank, which found that municipal police departments nationwide sustain 10.4 percent of all excessive-force complaints they receive.
Sheldon Greenberg, director of Johns Hopkins University's Police Executive Leadership Program and a member of the Justice Department's working group on police integrity, agrees that statistics alone don't accurately reflect how a department is handling complaints.
More important, he asserts, are the quality of the investigations, the extent to which the public is encouraged to make complaints, the ease with which they can make complaints, whether the complaints are taken seriously by internal affairs units, and whether a department has a method for tracking repeated complaints against a particular officer regardless of whether they are sustained.
In order to address those factors, New Times scrutinized more than 175 individual internal affairs investigations from 1991 to 1996. Overall the investigations were professionally conducted, though some departments -- Metro-Dade in particular -- were more thorough than others in tracking down witnesses and documenting each step of the process. Metro-Dade routinely canvassed neighborhoods searching for witnesses, going so far as to dispatch investigators to a neighborhood or an intersection in the middle of the night to hunt for onlookers who might frequent the area at that time.
Since the early Eighties, Metro-Dade has housed its internal affairs unit, known as the professional compliance bureau, in a separate building several miles from police headquarters. Metro Deputy Director G.T. Arnold says the department wants to make it easy for an officer to provide information about a colleague whose behavior is out of line without that officer being blackballed as a snitch. In addition, Metro-Dade believes that separate locations help to alleviate civilian complainants' feelings of intimidation.
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.
In photographs included in the internal affairs file, Negrete's chest looks as if it has been rubbed against a giant cheese grater. And his injury is only one aspect of his complaint. As he lay outside the car, he said, an officer walked by and kicked him in the face. He also alleged that police officers had taunted him and his wife about being indios, or Indians, a racist reference to Ecuador's indigenous population. "I told him, 'I'm not an Indian, I'm a human being just like you. I haven't done anything wrong,'" Negrete recalled in his interview with investigators.
More than twenty witnesses, including eighteen police officers, gave statements to internal affairs investigators. "None of the officers or supervisors interviewed could explain how Mr. Negrete received the 'road rash' to his chest area," the internal affairs report noted. Negrete's injury was not mentioned in the paperwork filled out by the officers, although they did document injuries received by the officers: a hurt finger and a head laceration.
"None of the officers interviewed acknowledged anyone using derogatory language or making fun of the fact that the Negretes were 'Indios,'" the report continued. "None of the officers interviewed acknowledged seeing any officer kick Mr. Negrete while he was on the ground."
Chief Bolanos reviewed the report and ordered the officer who had arrested Negrete to forfeit ten hours of accrued leave. "Officer Michael Vesely was responsible for [the] prisoner in his custody," Bolanos wrote on the last page of the report. Bolanos also ordered a twenty-hour suspension for the lieutenant in charge, but agreed to revoke the punishment after the lieutenant protested that it was unfair.
"The assignment of discipline hours is extremely arbitrary," Bolanos explains. "It depends on how much I am offended at the time I get the package in front of me." The chief says he also considers how much public outrage was generated by the case, as well as other factors.
In sustaining the accusations against Vesely, Bolanos ticked off a list of departmental policies the officer had violated -- regulations regarding use of force, custody of prisoners, and reporting of injuries. He did not, however, cite Vesely or any of the other officers for being untruthful, even though the report called their veracity into question.
Vesely, in particular, insisted he did not know how Negrete was injured. He acknowledged arresting Negrete, hog-tying him, and carrying him to his car, but said he was fuzzy about subsequent details, particularly who exactly moved Negrete so Vesely could change his tire.
"Officer Vesely stated he does not know what happened to Mr. Negrete from that point on because he had his back to Juan Negrete," the report emphasized. "Officer Vesely did not remember whether fire rescue personnel treated Mr. Negrete or not, even though he stated Mr. Negrete was only ten to fifteen feet away from him while he was changing the tire to his unit."
Other police departments are more aggressive about enforcing policies requiring officers to tell the truth. In recent years, the Miami Police Department and Metro-Dade Police Department have disciplined officers for lying to internal affairs investigators.
In June 1994, Nestor Garcia, a 29-year-old Miami police officer assigned to the crime suppression unit, was found to have violated a department order requiring employees to be truthful. A year earlier, Garcia had arrested a pretty Nicaraguan woman named Jasmine Solorzano. He claimed that Solorzano had gotten too close to the scene of an accident. (Adjudication on the charge was withheld.)
On January 10, 1994, the 25-year-old Solorzano, a clerk at Miami Beach's South Shore hospital, was arrested again. A neighbor saw her breaking into the apartment she shared with her boyfriend (she didn't have a key) and called the police to report a prowler. When Solorzano was brought to the police station, Garcia's patrol partner happened to be working in prisoner processing. He radioed Garcia, who rushed over.
In the version Garcia later provided to investigators, he claimed Solorzano initiated contact. "She wanted to know if I could help her out," Garcia asserted in a sworn statement. "She didn't know why she was being arrested and [wanted to know] if there was anything I could do, 'cause, you know, I had arrested her in the past and I guess since I had treated her so friendly last time, she wanted to know if I could show her the same courtesy." Garcia said that Solorzano became hysterical when he refused to help her and that she then tried to hit him with a clipboard.
Solorzano's statement varied significantly. She said that Garcia entered the holding cell on his own initiative. "He told me, 'Do you know why you are here? Because you were a bitch.'" Solorzano said Garcia left the cell, then came back and told her to go to the prisoner processing room.
According to the internal affairs report: "She stated Officer Garcia again began calling her 'bitch' and 'whore' and also stated, 'What do you want me to do, take off my uniform and fuck you?' Ms. Solorzano stated she became angry, stood up from the chair, and told Officer Garcia that he had no right to talk to her that way. She stated that Officer Garcia stood up from his chair... and stood directly in front of her, face to face. Ms. Solorzano stated she then pushed Officer Garcia in the chest to get him away from her. Officer Garcia reached over and slapped her on the left side of her face, causing redness and minor swelling." Garcia denied to internal affairs investigators that he slapped Solorzano.
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."
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.
Around the nation, communities are developing new methods to improve the credibility of the internal affairs process. Los Angeles County; Portland, Oregon; and San Jose, California, for example, have employed independent internal affairs "auditors." Says the University of Nebraska's Sam Walker: "Auditors can sit in on interviews with witnesses, or they can review the transcripts or the tapes and look for bias, a failure to follow up with an obvious question. If the investigators are asking leading questions to officers, they can catch that."
Since 1980 Dade County has had an independent review panel that investigates complaints against county employees, including police officers. The panel functions similarly to an independent auditor in that it can review the work of police investigators and issue its own findings, which in some cases are at odds with those reached by the department. Its mandate, however, is to investigate complaints, not to monitor internal affairs departments.
"One thing that police administrators could do [to boost public confidence] is to have as open a civilian-review process as possible," advises Wes Pomeroy, who founded the Dade review panel.
Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw says he welcomes public scrutiny if it will improve his department's relationship with the people he serves: "We really want the community to feel they can come in here and make a complaint against an officer and not have any kind of retribution and get a fair and accurate investigation.