Flunk Out

Dade County's school district may have its own police department, but law enforcement experts say it doesn't come close to making the grade

Deputy superintendent Carol Cortes, who has overall responsibility for the school police, goes even further. OPS, she maintains, not only has the authority to decide whether a criminal investigation or an arrest is appropriate, but its directors also have a responsibility to hold overzealous officers in check. "I've looked at cases where police officers have overused their powers," Cortes says. "I can't use my authority as a deputy [superintendent] against someone because I don't like them. The police are here not to crack heads and be Rambos. If someone wants to follow the letter of the law, they shouldn't be school police."

As far as Katherine Fernandez Rundle is concerned, such thinking is seriously flawed. "I certainly want to review that with them and determine why they make a distinction between some crimes and not others. All criminal allegations should always be investigated by a criminal agency," she says emphatically. "You need to know what the elements of a crime are -- what is the burden of proof, how do you gauge credibility, how do you examine whether someone is just trying to ruin someone's career or whether there's enough corroboration? Those are professional skills that should be handled by professionals."

Otto del Forn is the type of professional Fernandez Rundle has in mind. A 26-year veteran of police work, 23 of them with the City of Miami, he joined the school police force three years ago, after retiring from the city. But this past May he resigned in frustration after a school principal successfully barred him from arresting a Miami High School football player suspected of aggravated assault. Today he is a lieutenant with the newly formed Pinecrest Police Department. "The OPS should stick with civil matters and we should do ours," del Forn asserts. "If you're going to arrest someone for possession of a kilo of cocaine, why should you go to their supervisor? If there's a complaint against a principal, only a captain of a region can investigate it. Why can't a detective investigate it like anyone else? We have to be professional and should not have outside interference -- not even from the school board."

Hopes for a new era of professionalism at the school police department were raised when former chief Eugene "Red" McAllister stepped down this past December after 28 years with the force, 18 as chief. During his tenure, he developed a reputation for preserving cordial relations with his superiors in the school district's administration while at the same time irritating some local law enforcement professionals by failing to establish a comprehensive system of mutual aid among Dade's various police departments and by hiring officers who didn't meet the minimum standards required by such agencies as Metro-Dade and the City of Miami.

When McAllister left, twenty outspoken officers signed a petition asking the superintendent and school board to hire a chief who had been trained and groomed for management by another police agency. Instead the board promoted 44-year-old Vivian Monroe, who joined the department in 1974 and had worked her way up through the ranks.

Monroe's elevation to chief may not have represented the dramatic change many officers had hoped for, despite the fact that she was the first woman and the first black to hold the position. Still, with few enemies among officers or administrators, and with a spotless record replete with excellent evaluations, she inspired guarded optimism that the department might be transformed into one respected by both law enforcement professionals and school district officials.

According to a dozen school police officers who spoke off the record for this story, some of that optimism began to fade almost immediately after Monroe was named chief. For one thing, shortly before her appointment she married James Monroe, a top executive with the Office of Professional Standards. Their relationship only exacerbated the officers' long-standing concerns about OPS's involvement in police work.

Since she took charge this past January, say the officers, Monroe's hiring and promotion decisions have failed to ease their doubts about her ability or desire to upgrade the quality of officers and executives. As an example, the officers note that the chief recently hired an officer who was fired by one local police department and rejected by another (see accompanying sidebar titled "High Expectations, Low Pay"). In addition, Monroe promoted an officer who is actively being investigated for possible violations of law and police department policy.

When she advanced to chief, Monroe frequently declared that she wanted to be a role model for other African-American women. Accordingly, late this past May she announced the promotion of Stephana Clark, a black lieutenant, to the rank of captain. (The department employs twelve black female officers, six of whom hold the rank of sergeant or above.)

As part of her new position, Clark was assigned responsibility for staff services, which, among other things, requires her to supervise the police department's internal affairs unit. Internal affairs routinely undertakes sensitive investigations of police officers suspected of wrongdoing.

As Chief Monroe must have known, Stephana Clark herself is the subject of an investigation by the internal affairs unit that began in May 1995 and which remains open while awaiting disposition by the State Attorney's Office.

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